One of the corporal works of mercy is visiting “the sick and imprisoned” and as the Year of Mercy draws to a close, Aleteia visited with Fr. Roger Reader, Prison Adviser for the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales. Fr. Reader calls it “a privilege to work with people in prison; it’s an extraordinary environment where you would think the hope had gone.”
Instead, in prison, hope is something that must be re-discovered. “In a way someone is told that going to prison is for 5 year, maybe for 10 years, maybe for the rest of their natural life, and they will have found themselves separated from their loved ones, their family and all that is important to them,” he says. “You would think they would lose hope, but I find that in prison there is hope. There can be hope, and it is absolutely a privilege to talk to people for whom the Gospel is so new, and so fresh. A lot of them come from a very secular background, and they will not have had much of a Catholic upbringing.”
Prison then, becomes extraordinary mission territory. “For me personally, for example, to sit with a prisoner and talk through the parable of the prodigal son, and to take him through the stages of that parable of mercy, and when we get to the bit where the younger son decides to return to his father, I close the book. And I ask, ‘what do you think the father did to his son?’”
The responses can be telling. Fr. Reader says, “Nearly all of them say, ‘Well, he gives him a kick; he beats him…’ and when you say, “No, the father hugged him; the father welcomed him; the father gave him new clothes…’ To tell somebody that story — those words of Jesus — the first time they hear them, that’s an amazing privilege [to witness].”
In his experience in prison ministry, Fr. Reader says he has learned not to generalize or stereotype a prisoner, but to simply accept the person before him, and even accept what motivates them to come to Mass. Sometimes, “prisoners will ask to come to Mass because they know their friends will be there.” But that can be a first step.
The priest finds inspiration in Pope Francis, who has made a point of visiting detention centers, and in the Year of Mercy which, he says, “is proving very significant for both people who are in prison and for those who want to work with prisoners. The Holy Father has said that the [Year of Mercy] indulgence is available in prison. He speaks of the cell doors of the prisoners as being holy doors.
“The Holy Father has such a heart for prisoners, and clearly,the Year of Mercy, one of its big aims is about prisoners, and the mercy of visiting people in prison.”
Parishes have emailed him asking how they can arrange ministries to visit prisoners. “Not surprisingly, people are frightened of prison. Maybe they themselves have been victims of crime. We should never forget,” he cautions, “that for every person in prison there are one, two, three, many victims. When people come to prison to see if [such ministry] is something they would like to do, clearly they arrive very nervous. You know, they’re walking through the gate and they’re looking around, wondering what’s happening. And they hear a noise and they jump! And then after you introduce them to some prisoners, at the end, 90% of people say, ‘they’re just like us!’”
Reader leans forward, and smiles, “Well, because they are just like us!”
Mass becomes a singularly important experience for prisoners. “They speak of how Mass opens up for them the mercy of God, how coming to Mass makes them feel linked to the rest of the world — the walls are a bit more ‘come down’ — because they are part of the worshiping church. It’s brought prayer into their lives. People would be surprised at how much people in prison pray.”
Another thing that might surprise outsiders, reader reveals, is how much prisoners value having “holy things, holy pictures, having a Rosary; it softens the heart of the prisoner.”
A prison chaplaincy is a very pastoral role, and one prisoners take as such. Having often felt unheard or unheeded in life, they value being listened to in a non-judgmental way. “Sometimes, they say, ‘Father, this is the first time someone has ever listened to me!’”
This, too, Reader calls a privilege.
Still, “We must never presume on God’s mercy. We must never presume on God’s love. Prison is very much a place where people can be confronted by truth — can be confronted by the truth of what they have done, how they have damaged people. The immensity of the crime they have committed. And then their heart truly begins to open to God’s mercy.
“We can never say that for that person, this cannot happen. We can never put limits, as human beings, on the mercy of God.”