At the American Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association (ACCCA) annual summer conference this past August 3-5, 2016 in Waltham, MA, the Executive Council, together with the invited speakers and the participants who attended, conducted a 3-day discernment about the future of the ACCCA and national Catholic ministry to the imprisoned. On Friday, at the end of the convention’s “collective discernment” exercise, a decision was taken to suppress the ACCCA and start something new, arising from the embers of the old, that would be more responsive to developing trends in the national field of corrections, the diminishment of traditional Catholic prison chaplaincies around the US, and emerging alternatives to behind-the-bars jail and prison chaplaincy.
The new entity envisioned, potentially called “National Catholic Criminal Justice Ministries,” would seek to develop a “national” response (as contrasted with “local” and “regional” efforts) and set of resources and tools to engage six newer realities burgeoning in the world of correctional ministry:
(1) A national, ecclesial approach on behalf of our US Catholic Church. Undertaking a wider, “ecclesial” response by our national Church to the Catholics/people engaged in, imprisoned or otherwise supervised by the criminal justice system throughout the United States. This would mean undertaking a redoubled effort on maintaining the US Catholic Church’s awareness, presence, liturgy and sacraments, ministry, prayer and assistance to Catholics who are involved, imprisoned or under the supervision of the criminal justice system, the “Church-in-chains,”—as well as to the victims of crime and violence and the impact on the general well-being of our society and Church.

(2) An integral approach to the whole gamut of criminal justice activities, supervision and ministries. An emphasis on the whole range of ministries dealing with Catholics involved in one way or another with the criminal justice system and imprisonment in a jail or prison. This includes, in addition to traditional jail and prison ministries: prevention strategies; juvenile justice and alternative juvenile programs; immigration detention and ICE facilities; capital punishment, death row and solitary confinement advocacy and ministries; re-entry issues for returning citizens; the world of probation and parole; the families/children of the imprisoned and returning citizens; victims of crime and violence; restorative justice activities; and finally, advocacy for alternative sentencing measures and criminal justice legislative reform at the local, regional and national levels. Though the lion’s share of focus will probably always remain on traditional “behind-the-bars” ministries, we would seek to be more aware and active with Catholics and other citizens before and after imprisonment. There is a lot for our Church to undertake in the vast field of criminal justice!

(3) A redirection of resources from traditional Catholic clergy chaplains to Catholic lay volunteers. We want to shift the focus away from traditional, full-time, paid, “staff Catholic chaplains” (many of whom traditionally have been clergy–priests, nuns, brothers, deacons and lay ecclesial ministers) to the emerging host of Catholic volunteers who in recent times have been carrying the weight of criminal justice ministries on behalf of our Church, but often enough without the acknowledgement, training or support of their parish or diocese. This shift also includes a renewed effort to engage in succession-planning, so that younger generations will take up the charge as older generations retire and/or become unable to serve due to age and infirmity.

(4) Ministry to the ministers and volunteers who undertake criminal justice ministries. We hope to assemble a national resource that will provide critical and much-needed support to Catholic chaplains and volunteers over and beyond what takes place at the local level. There is a growing acknowledgement of and need for “ministry to the ministers.”

(5) A growing awareness of and ministerial service to all those “vocationally” involved as Catholics in the whole field of criminal justice. We envisage reaching out to those Catholics “vocationally” working in the field, but almost always left out or underserved by traditional chaplaincy resources, esp. Catholic correctional officers and those Catholics in the chain-of-command who manage and administer correctional facilities and programs; law enforcement, esp. police, EMT and first responders at the scene of accidents, crime, arrest or in general patrolling our streets; health care personnel in clinics and hospitals, correctional facilities and DOC state mental hospitals; and advocates, lawyers and judges.

(6) Reaching out to victims of crime and violence and offering them our Church’s ministry, support, healing and reconciliation.

Submitted by Fr. Richard A. Deshaies, SJ
December 9. 2016
Memorial of Blessed Juan Diego