• The National Federation of Priest’s Councils asked Fr. Christian Reuter to review Catholic Prison Ministry in the United States and the need for a long-overdue course correction in terms of mass incarceration which is a broken and failed system where thousands of penitentiaries “warehouse” more than two million men and women.

The prison visit has become an obligatory stop on the Pope’s visit to any country. Francis, both in word and in action, has made care for the incarcerated a signature mark of his papacy—one that he stressed often during the recently concluded Year of Mercy. Our challenge, of course, is to add creative actions and sustainability to Francis’ symbolic gestures.

Frankly, I was a bit embarrassed when the Holy Father visited the Philadelphia prison last year; and I hoped he wouldn’t ask too many questions. We put on a grand show for the media: All the dignitaries were present; the inmates wore fresh jumpsuits; and the program unfolded precisely on schedule. Did Francis understand, when he boarded his plane back to Rome, that these are not typical conditions in which we do prison ministry? Does he appreciate the number and size of the issues we face daily?

I got my first clue when a letter arrived from his Apostolic Nuncio. Acting on a request from the Congregation for Clergy, Archbishop Christophe Pierre requested “information about the state of prison ministry in the United States”. He asked for a report to help “prepare specific initiatives in the future that would truly meet the needs of those in prison and jails, their families, and those who minister to them”. Both the hierarchy and the priests who minister with them, I concluded, need to hear the truth.

Mass Incarceration: A Very Broken and Failed System

The statistics of U. S. incarceration are well known. We have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. We’ve constructed more than a thousand penitentiaries in recent years to “warehouse” the more than two millionwhom we detain. Well over half of those released will recidivate in three years. The financial costs to taxpayers, fueled by the insatiable greed of the Prison-Industrial Complex, are almost impossible to estimate. One of our bishops several years ago called it an “addiction” and “a public health crisis”. Already in the year 2000 all the bishops of our country spoke of our “broken system” of criminal justice.

It is not just the numbers. Just as we are making some progress on eliminating capital punishment, along come new issues to be faced—solitary confinement, mandatory sentencing, immigrant detention, privatized prisons, physical and mental health care, racial and ethnic inequality.To all of these you can add the problems we’ve always encountered from some anti-Catholic officials.

Prisons have always combined punishment and correction under one roof, and history shows that one or the other will be emphasized at a given time. Although the latest Department of Justice statistics show the first prison population decrease in many years, the election of 2016 seems to predict a greater use of incarceration. Conditions have always been widely varied and challenging in the world of corrections, but the Church of the past was able to respond creatively. We have now arrived, I submit, at a crucial moment of decision. What used to work well is no longer working.

The Catholic Response: Professional Priest Chaplains

Fifty years ago we had enough clergy to fill all our slots—mainstream parishes and many specialized ministries. Imprisoned Catholics were served by ordained priests who were CPE credentialed and salaried by the state. Those chaplains, who served the Church so well, have become a nearly extinct species; and our prison and jail ministries are increasingly relying on deacons and lay ministers. It is telling that the American Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association, once the “official” home of Catholic prison chaplains under the USCCB, was dissolved last year and is searching for a way to reinvent itself. What remains at the national level is a loose collection of individuals and groups who do these kinds of ministries, but nothing close to a coordinated strategy.

We are beginning to realize the need for a comprehensive criminal justice ministry at all levels. We cannot focus just on serving incarcerated individuals; but, as Restorative Justice is teaching us, we must reach out to all those impacted—families and children, victims of crime, system employees, and entire communities. Special skills are required to bring pastoral care and justice advocacy into this troubled environment, which means that they must be included in all of our Church’s ministry formation curricula. Celebrating the sacraments and imparting catechesis are very different behind bars.

When preparing my report to the Apostolic Nuncio, I decided to take a quick tour of the websites of all our dioceses just to see how they described and delivered prison ministry. What I discovered was a “checkered field” of endless variety. They use different vocabularies. Some have stand-alone offices, and others place it under bigger umbrellas (like Catholic Charities or St. Vincent de Paul). Some have well developed prison and jail ministry programs, and others sadly don’t even mention them. In a few places dioceses have banded together under the auspices of their state Catholic Conferences to coordinate their criminal justice work. In general, however, isolation is the name of the game; and there is little sharing of resources and best practices. What is clearly needed is better networking, which is what we theologically proclaim as the Body of Christ—one Church with many kinds of members,

In my own Belleville Diocese we have worked hard to recruit and organize our chaplains and volunteers, and we are actively preparing to establish a prisoner reentry house in our area. At the state level we now have a very proactive criminal justice network that includes all six Illinois dioceses. We are now able to represent the Church to our government and corrections officials, and we provide continuous pastoral care when prisoners are transferred across diocesan boundaries. We have partnered with one of our Catholic universities to provide formation for prison ministry leadership positions and present them to our bishops for endorsement. I shamelessly borrow all the good ideas I learn from colleagues, and I try to share what we have learned with others.

Priests and Their Councils Have Unique Gifts to Offer

I know better than to ask already overburdened priests to take on additional jobs. In a sacramental Church, however, we are the only ones who can bring Eucharist and Reconciliation to its members who are unable to come to our houses of worship. So please, in the name of the Christ who was himself a prisoner, tend to the incarcerated with the same care that you give to the homebound and those in health care facilities. Say yes when you are asked to join a rotation for ministry in the prisons and jails within your parish boundaries. It’s a burden made easier when shared, and you will be pleasantly surprised how rewarding it is to dispense God’s mercy to those who’ve experienced so little of it from others.

American Catholics excel at performing the works of mercy, and we are unmatched when it comes to collecting and distributing mountains of food and clothing. But visiting the imprisoned, the last item on Jesus’ Matthew 25 checklist, is easily overlooked. Before I close, allow me to suggest several ways that the NFPC and its members might help correct this imbalance:

  • See to it that criminal justice has a clearly defined place in your diocese’s administrative structure of offices and ministries. This can be done in many ways, but present conditions suggest that it should not be just one item in a larger list of social justice concerns. There should be one person who is clearly designated by the bishop to coordinate internal communication and external networking with state and national agencies. It will be clear to all, including inmates and their families, that prison ministry is not an extra-curricular activity or an afterthought.
  • Priests are also in a position to increase prison ministry’s visibility. First educate yourselves, and  don’t be shy about including criminal justice issues—including the controversial ones—in your preaching and catechesis. Also see that these are regularly addressed in the context of Catholic  social justice teaching in your diocesan and parish publications. Take advantage of opportunities to have both religious and secular experts speak to church organizations. Catholics are just as prone as everyone else to the misinformation and fear-mongering about crime and punishment that are served up by politicians and the media.
  • A creative and useful way for pastors to help the total effort is to get their parishes sensitized and prepared for prisoner reentry. We who minister to prisoners still serving their sentences work hard at faith development, but we often worry what will become of our efforts after their release. Parolees have many problems to confront during their transition back into society, and the Church does not need to be one of them. Catholic “returning citizens” must be integrated into faith communities that are warm and welcoming, supportive and non-judgmental. This is a grace-filled opportunity for a new lay ministry, especially by men trained to serve as mentors.

As the Year of Mercy 2016 was drawing to a close, Pope Francis asked every diocese in the world to create something new—an institution, a ministry, a movement—so that the Church’s outreach to the dispossessed and marginalized would continue and grow. I am suggesting to my brother priests around the country that criminal justice is a fertile field in which to do exactly that.

(Father Christian Reuter. O.F.M., is Prison Ministry Coordinator for the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois. He can be reached at 618-482-5570 or cnreuter@yahoo.com. The website of its developing “returning citizens”reentry house, Our Brothers’ Keepers of Southern Illinois, is www.obkministry.org.)