At the end of 2016, the United States had its lowest incarceration rate in 20 years, with about 2.2 million people behind bars. Despite this fall, the U.S. still has one of the largest incarceration rates in the world, and many Catholic parishes around the country minister to those who are in prison, and to their families.
But we can sometimes think that the people who are incarcerated are there for a reason – to keep them away from society. So why should we go to them? Bishop Bill Wack, of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, stopped by Morning Air® to discuss prison ministry, and why Catholics have a responsibility to minister to those who are incarcerated or recently released from prison.
Visiting the imprisoned is a corporal work of mercy, and Bishop Wack emphasized our responsibility as disciples of Christ to visit the imprisoned, saying, “We have to remember that it’s one of the commandments of Jesus. He says, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food’ and we think of soup kitchens, ‘I was sick and you visited me’ and we visit our friends and relatives in hospitals. But then He said, ‘I was in prison and you visited me.'”
Acknowledging that logistics can make prison ministry more complicated than other ministries, Bishop Wack said, “It’s hard because of getting all of the approvals, the badge, all the things that we have to do to go into a prison to visit someone. It’s really difficult. So it’s only a few people who do it. We think of deacons and some priests and professional chaplains. But really, all of us are called to do that, in some way. At least to pray for them, if not to communicate with them, perhaps via letters or an advocate on their behalf.”
Morning Air co-host Glen Lewerenz shared his experience of prison ministry, and that it doesn’t necessarily require special skills or experience, but can be simply a ministry of presence.
“A lot of what you did was really just listening to the inmate, because so often they don’t have anybody that really listens to them,” Glen said. “That really moved me to the plight of people that might be serving time for things. My goodness, it is not easy. And so what can we do to have a little bit more of a heart for those who are incarcerated?”
Sharing some suggestions for how to be present for those who are imprisoned, Bishop Wack said, “First of all just learn, what would it take? Maybe my parish, maybe the church sends a group. A lot of places offer retreats to the inmates throughout the year, which is a really neat way of getting involved. And just as you said, sitting and talking and listening to someone is very helpful.”
“[They are] our brothers and sisters,” he reminded listeners. “So we have to treat them as such. They are our brothers and sisters.”