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The pandemic’s effect on prison ministry

I recently read on Catholic News Agency about an Italian prisoner sentenced to 30 years for murder who will profess vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the presence of his bishop during his incarceration. The article said Luigi (not his real name) wanted to become a priest from a young age. Sadly, alcohol, drugs and violence changed his life and he murdered someone during a fist fight. While in jail and free from the demons of drugs and alcohol, he has returned to praying, became a lector for Mass and prayed for the salvation of the victim of his crime. His renewed spiritual direction with his prison chaplains and the written communication with his bishop placed him back on track to seek his vocational journey. He assumed that he would have to wait for his release to make his vows and dedicate his life to God, but his bishop allowed him the opportunity to make public vows in the presence of his incarcerated brothers. Not part of a religious order, Luigi professed his vows directly to his bishop. He wrote: “Chastity will allow me to mortify what is external, so that what is most important about us may emerge; poverty will give me the ability to share life generously with other prisoners; and obedience is the willingness to listen, even while knowing that God also speaks through the mouth of fools.”

I share this with you because even though I am not personally connected to this story, I witness many similar experiences in my prison ministry and in the ministry of the other prison ministers and chaplains.

As the director of prison ministry in the Archdiocese of Newark, I was asked by staff of The Catholic Advocate to write an article about what has been taking place in this ministry in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, I have not been inside a facility since the quarantine began in March because I am considered a volunteer. However, I am blessed to be able to network with a number of good male and female chaplains and prison ministers. I inquired among some of the full-time and part-time chaplain staff members about how the incarcerated are doing spiritually since all religious services in those facilities have been canceled until further notice. 

In one facility, a chaplain has provided a weekly video message of hope that is broadcast on a prison channel. A blessing in disguise, it’s reported that the message has been heard and digested by prisoners of all faiths in a positive and pleasant manner. In that facility, the interfaith chapel is currently closed, but the chaplain is allowed to visit inmates directly in their cells if a pastoral visit is requested. I’m told the closing of the chapel for the Catholic inmates has been a devastating loss and the incarcerated men miss the Eucharist terribly. In my own personal ministry in that particular facility, I have been ministering to those who are close to their release date and I can attest to how important the Mass is, the frequent reception of the Eucharist and spiritual direction. I can only pray for them at a distance for now. 

In another facility, all chaplains except one generic Christian chaplain have been dismissed and deemed non-essential. This minister is the sole person caring for Christians of all denominations, maintaining all the rules and protocols of social distancing. Sadly, Catholics in that facility are not receiving the Eucharist during this time. The Catholic chaplain in that facility informed me that the Catholics there are starving for the Eucharist and the return of the Mass. 

Another facility likewise deemed religious services non-essential and dismissed all chaplains. But this facility has allowed recorded messages on CD to be given to inmates who request it. This facility does house a large number of immigration and ICE detainees, many of whom are Catholic and in need of chaplain services. While the Mass is suspended until further notice, the administration allows inmates to call the chaplain on a secure line for spiritual direction. Zoom chats, Facebook and livestreaming media outlets are forbidden. 

I ask that you please join me in continuing our prayers for our incarcerated brothers and sisters. I have seen firsthand how God’s mercy overflows for all those in need.