Visit the prisoner

Continuing our meditation on the Works of Mercy, we consider one of the more difficult ones, visiting the prisoner. Jesus Himself spoke about this in His discussion of the final judgment, in which He will reward the sheep for visiting Him in prison and punish the goats for not doing so (Mt 25:31-46).

The late New York archbishop, John Cardinal O’Connor, said to a meeting of priests in Fatima in 1996, “‘Imitate what you handle,’ the Scripture tells us. And we do handle the Eucharist. We can imitate with sincerity, however, only if we consciously open ourselves to being formed by the Eucharist on a continuing basis. Many of us are engaged with deep commitment to the works of the social Gospel. We do, indeed, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the prisoner, minister to those with AIDS, all crucial and laudable works, indeed, but works whose efficacy is increased immensely when fired with Eucharistic love. For the Eucharistic Sacrifice not only feeds congregations Spiritually. It reaches out into the universe to feed and clothe and house and comfort the multitudes, bathing them in the love of the crucified and Risen Christ, that love for which they are starved.” The cardinal’s words to the priests speak to all of us — if we receive the Eucharist as Christ intends, then He will move us to acts of love for our neighbors, including those whom we find difficult to love, and these acts of love will be purified and intensified by Jesus in the Eucharist. 

The popes have long been visitors of prisons. In an Italian jail on July 5, 2014, Pope Francis said to the prisoners, “When I meet with one of you, who is in jail, who is moving toward reintegration, but who is imprisoned, I sincerely wonder: why him and not me? I feel this way. It’s a mystery.” Someone could answer the pope — “Well, this person committed a crime and you did not; that’s why.” However, it seems the Holy Father was driving home the point often made on the 1960s “Batman” TV show, “Robin, but for the grace of God” we’d be criminals, too.

Speaking to Italian prison chaplains on Oct. 23, 2013, the pope said, “The Lord is close, but tell [the prisoners] with your actions, with your words and with your hearts that the Lord does not remain outside, He does not remain outside their cells, He does not remain outside the prison; rather, He is inside, He is there.”

The pope noted that we are praying for conversion in prison: “I pray that each one may open his heart to this love. I also pray for you, who are chaplains, and for your ministry which is difficult, it is very demanding and very important since it expresses one of the Works of Mercy: to make the Lord’s presence visible in the prison, in the prison cell. Recently you spoke about a justice of reconciliation, but also about a justice of hope, open doors, and horizons. This is not a utopia, it can be done. It is not easy, for our weaknesses are everywhere, the devil is also everywhere, temptations are everywhere; but we must always try.”

On June 21, 2014, Pope Francis spoke about what should be the aim of prisons: “In advice pertaining to prisoners, the theme often highlighted is respect for basic human rights and the need for the punishment to fit the crime. This is certainly an essential aspect of prison policy and it deserves great attention. However this perspective is not enough if it is not accompanied and completed by the institutions’ concrete commitment to bring about an effective reintegration into society (cf. Benedict XVI, address to participants in the 17th Council of Europe Conference of Directors of Prison Administration, Nov. 22, 2012). When this objective is neglected, the implementation of the penalty degenerates into an instrument of punishment alone and of social retaliation, which in turn is detrimental to the individual and society. And God does not do this with us. God, when He forgives us, He accompanies us and helps us along the way. Always. Even in the small things. When we go to Confession, the Lord tells us: ‘I forgive you. But now come with Me.’ He never simply forgives, but He forgives and accompanies. He always takes us by the hand again. This is the love of God, and we must imitate it! Society must imitate it. Take this path.”

Pope Benedict, in the address his successor cited above, said, “If human justice in this area is to look to Divine justice and be shaped by that higher vision, the re-educational purpose of the sentence must be regarded not as an ancillary or secondary aspect of the penal system, but rather as its culminating and defining feature. In order to ‘practice justice,’ it is not enough that those found guilty of crimes be simply punished: it is necessary that in punishing them, everything possible be done to correct and improve them. When this does not happen, justice is not done in an integral sense. In any event, it is important to avoid giving rise to a situation where imprisonment that fails in its re-educational role becomes counter-educational and paradoxically reinforces rather than overcomes the tendency to commit crime and the threat posed to society by the individual.”

To further what the Holy Fathers have been teaching in this area, the bishops of the United States have supported bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation. Last October, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami announced his support for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. According to the USCCB website, “The Act reduces certain mandatory minimum sentences, expands so-called sentencing ‘safety valves,’ works to reduce recidivism with expanded prison-based programs, and limits solitary confinement for juvenile offenders, among other things. ‘Pope Francis asks us to create new opportunities: for inmates, for their families, for correctional authorities, and for society as a whole,’” said the archbishop, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development of the USCCB. 

He added, “We must try to ensure that sentences are just, while creating humane space in which individuals can restore their lives with the kind of support that reduces the chances that they will return to prison in the future. These reforms are a step in the right direction.”

We cannot all physically visit prisons, but we can Spiritually assist this Work of Mercy through our support of the Catholic Charities Appeal (which funds our permanent diaconate program — we depend upon the service of our deacons as prison chaplains; it also funds Catholic Social Services, which has programs helping people to reintegrate into society after coming out of prison) and of the other programs lay people in our diocese coordinate to help bring Christ into the jails.

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