by Fr. Chris Reuter O.F.M.
Prison Ministry is one of the Church’s best-kept secrets. It’s the final item in Matthew 25, where Jesus clearly itemizes the criteria by which we will be judged. Somehow we hear him when there are needs to feed and clothe the needy, but we rarely get to the end of the list when asked if we saw you ill or in prison and visited you.
Pope Francis makes it clear in his message on Fraternity: “In the broad context of human social relations, when we look to crime and punishment, we cannot help but think of the inhumane conditions in so many prisons, where those in custody are often reduced to a sub-human status in violation of their human dignity and stunted in their hope and desire for rehabilitation. The Church does much in these environments, mostly in silence. We ask the encourage everyone to do more, in the hope that the efforts being made in this area by so many courageous men and women will be increasingly supported, fairly and honestly, but the civil authorities as well.”
Here in southern Illinois we have a large number of prisons and prisoners – a reflection of our country, which incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth. As “Prison Ministry Coordinator” for the Belleville Diocese, my first responsibility is to see that Catholic prisoners are provided the ordinary sacramental, catechetical, and other ministries of the Church. It is an ongoing challenge to recruit and train ordained and lay ministers to meet these needs. We also try to practice all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy with our resources. One that we are currently working on is the difficult issue of prisoner re-entry into society.
Church law is clear that prisoners have a right to this ministry and that bishop and pastors have the duty to provide it, just as we do for the sick and infirm who cannot be physically present in our parish churches. Canon Law asks us to make sure prisoners know they are members of the Church.
"I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own." ~ Pope Francis address to the detainees at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on September 27, 2015