OPEN WIDE OUR HEARTS
Prison Ministry In These Times
Enjoying my home and garden on these beautiful summer days, almost basking in the coronavirus need to stay home, I find that it is possible to remove myself from the troubles of our country. I am shocked at that! Especially considering the work that I do, I wonder how this can be. As I ponder the problem, I realize that the great issues we face can tire us, frighten us, discourage us. And I ask myself the difficult question, “Am I racist?”
Racism. The word conjures images of torches, lynching, terror. Well, I certainly am not that! But as the bishops of the United States point out in “Open Wide Our Hearts,” (see below) there are varying degrees of racism. They go on to say that that it can be found in our hearts, “placed there unwillingly or unknowingly by our upbringing and culture.” Considering this, I must face the notion that, yes, perhaps that level of racism exists in me.
How then do I move forward, particularly in my work? What is the role of the Catholic in these times and how do the issues of today apply to prison ministry? The bishops ask us to consider the reality of systemic racism, saying that it still “profoundly affects our culture.” One aspect of that effect is the present reality of mass incarceration. In her book “Redeeming a Prison Society” (see below) Amy Levad explains that one out of every three African-American men can expect to be imprisoned in their lifetime. She goes on to say that “deaths in encounters with police are the proverbial tip of the iceberg of issues in our criminal justice systems that are inflected with social injustice.” The Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition (see below) states that “Any engagement with the reality of incarceration in the United States must involve engagement with the reality of racial injustice.”
One way of moving forward is to acknowledge that prison ministry can begin in the community. It is in the community that we can discover the circumstances that lead to criminal behavior. And one way of bringing about healing from that behavior is the practice of restorative justice. Levad advocates for this approach, saying that “in this way all community members take responsibility for the social reintegration and internal reform of wrongdoers by offering guidance and support.”
The bishops of the United States also advocate for restorative justice in their statement “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration.” (See below.) This slim booklet (online version available) offers comprehensive background and suggestions for action which address overall issues of criminal justice in our country as well as the connection between racism and incarceration. Resources for learning about and practicing restorative justice can be found on The Catholic Mobilizing Network website. (See below.)
In his Chapel Chat of July 24 Archbishop Sample urges us to pray, and yes, to act. Let us act in a way that reflects Jesus’ teaching that we are all brothers and sisters and children of the Father (Mt23:8-9). The bishops tell us that evangelization means “not only entry into the community, but the building up of the community.” Thus prison ministry can begin in the community by addressing the forces that lead to crime and prison. A Catholic vision of prison ministry seeks to further the Kingdom by building our communities of faith, compassion and equity so that every one of our brothers and sisters lives an everyday life of dignity, free from the pressures of poverty, fear and marginalization which drive people to crime. The realization of this vision is the fruit of restorative justice, a justice which not only heals the wounds of a specific crime, but which leads us to “original justice” – right relationship with God, ourselves and one another. It is God’s justice, and as the great Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann offers, “God’s restoration is …toward a new historical possibility through the giving of new gifts. This God has the capacity to restore, recover, and revivify! Let us all find our part of this revitalizing, this restoration!
July 29, 2020
Open Wide Our Hearts
Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice
Catholic Mobilizing Network
Catholic Prison Ministry Coalition
Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Punishment.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 2000.
Levad, Amy. Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical & Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration. Fortress, 2014.