by Peter Carroll MSC, Institutional Chaplaincy Manager, CatholicCare Sydney
Operating in a place of punishment and despair, the role of prison chaplains is critical in our community. While a single bad choice, or a cascade of ever-increasing foolish choices, can lead to incarceration it is worth remembering a listening ear and genuine care can bring hope despite the lack of freedom.
As we approach Prison Sunday, held each year to mark the Jubilee for Prisoners, the importance of prison ministry must also be remembered every day.
Many prisoners, or inmates, carry burdens of poor self-image, mental illness, intellectual disabilities, and lower socio-economic backgrounds, leading to a damaged sense of vulnerability and that of being an outsider. From the moment they enter the prison system, they are virtually and literally stripped bare and have nowhere to hide. Time spent in prison is a period without privacy, controlled access to family, and restricted movement.
Providing a non-judgemental ear and an open heart, prison chaplains have a role to play in addressing people in prison experiencing vulnerability and assisting them on their path to rehabilitation. Not only to support and serve but also to care and help with healing. This also provides chaplains with an opportunity to share the Gospel with those in need, bringing to life the Scripture from the Book of Ruth: ‘Wherever you go, I shall go’.
Time spent in prison is a period of fear, facing challenges, self-reflection, understanding, and hopefully peace. Not only for those incarcerated but also for those visiting, including prison chaplains.
As a chaplain, it is important to present oneself as open-minded and unprejudiced. It is this attitude along with compassion, that encourages those in prison to speak honestly and feel safe in expressing their feelings and concerns.
The challenges faced by prison chaplains go beyond spreading the word of the Lord to a hesitant or suspicious audience. The real challenge lies in making a difference and providing sense to people who have lost their freedom and are often struggling with despair, anger, and hopelessness. The environment is a challenging one and providing hope can be difficult, but it is not insurmountable.
Theologian Karl Rahner spoke of self-reflection in his address to prison chaplains when he said,
“We are not essentially different from the prisoners whom we visit in prison. It is only circumstances distinguish us and we must be grateful to God for these circumstances”.
The realisation that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ is an uninvited insight and one that demands a prayer of gratitude, it is a reminder that any of us can stray from the path and the life of freedom we experience is at times only by accident and not necessarily by design.
Understanding the meaning behind imprisonment, and the demand for punishment and rehabilitation can make the role of the prison chaplain easier. In his sermon at the Jubilee for Prisoners Mass Pope Francis directly addressed those in prison, telling them it was necessary to pay a price for their crimes, however, they must never lose hope for the future.
“Paying for the wrong we have done is one thing, but another thing entirely is the breath of hope, which cannot be stifled by anyone or anything,"
"By learning from past mistakes, you can open a new chapter of your lives. Let us never yield to the temptation of thinking that we cannot be forgiven" Francis said.
Forgiveness can lead to peace, which then finds its way into the hearts and minds of prison chaplains and those they visit in a variety of ways, particularly through companionship. This journey is taken further with the CatholicCare Companions Matter program, ensuring not only companionship but also community welcome, connection, and a better sense of belonging. Assisting individuals upon their release from prison, Companions Matter helps redress the fears held by many upon their release from prison.
“I am very worried that what I know is socially unacceptable… things that kept me alive in the predatory world… what scares me is that I don’t know a lot of things Joe Citizen takes for granted… what really worries me is that the things that I don’t know about everyday life will lead me back to the things that I do know (how to steal a car in less than a minute, how to cut heroin…)” Long Bay Correctional Centre inmate
Prison chaplains offer pastoral care to inmates, their families, and employees at Long BayCorrectional Centre, Silverwater Metropolitan Remand Centre, and SilverwaterWomen’s Correctional Centre. Following release, CatholicCare Companions -including trained volunteers and Community Chaplains continue to offer holistic support through listening to a person's story and provide connection to a community that cares and can bring positive change into life after prison.
Peter Carroll is a priest with 41 years of experience with the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, over that time he have ministered in schools, parishes and prisons, since 2003. He is presently the Manager of Institutional Chaplaincy at CatholicCare Sydney and is working in Companions Matter.