Faith Alive

Catholic News Service

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    During this Year of Mercy instituted by Pope Francis, we're called to become extensions of God's mercy to others, particularly through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy -- acts of charity and love toward others.

    Visiting the imprisoned is perhaps the most challenging among the works of mercy, for it entails dealing with a segment of society many of the rest of us would just as soon ignore or remember just long enough to criticize or condemn.

    But in these times when the rate of incarceration of U.S. citizens is higher than in any other country, we can't turn a blind eye.


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    Visiting the imprisoned

    By Mike Nelson

    Catholic News Service

    The prisoner's name was Federico, and he was sharing with his visitor the challenge of coping with society's attitudes toward those like him.

    "Too little is said about us, and then often in ways so cruel as to wish us wiped out of society entirely," Federico said. "It makes us feel subhuman."

    His visitor nodded, listening intently, as Federico continued: "We beg you," he pleaded, "to make sure that we are not stripped of our dignity, along with our freedom. So that it is not taken for granted that being secluded means being excluded forever."

    Again his visitor nodded, and then replied, in a pastoral manner befitting a successor of St. Peter.

    "It seems important to me," said Pope Benedict XVI, "to encourage everyone to find meaning in your suffering, to aim to help you in the process of rising again. And I will do my part to invite all to think in this just way, not disparagingly but humanely, realizing that anyone can fall, but that God wants everyone to come to him.

    "And we must cooperate in the spirit of brotherhood and awareness of our own fragility, so that they can truly rise again and move forward with dignity and always find respect for their dignity, so that it increases. And in this way they can also find joy in life, for life is given to us by the Lord, with his plan."

    This pastoral visit of Pope Benedict -- to the Rebibbia District Prison in Rome on Dec. 18, 2011 -- modeled the corporal work of mercy that all who follow Jesus are called to perform, as Jesus himself suggests to his disciples in Matthew 25:36: "I was in prison and you visited me."

    Such visits are made by bishops, clergy, religious and laity. Recent popes have done likewise. Pope Francis, within days of his 2013 election, visited a juvenile detention center on Holy Thursday, washing the feet of women and non-Catholics. St. John Paul II visited a prison in 1983 to tell the man who shot him, Mehmet Ali Agca, that he forgave him.

    Visiting the imprisoned is perhaps the most challenging among the works of mercy, for it entails dealing with a segment of society many of the rest of us -- as Federico suggested to Pope Benedict -- would just as soon ignore or remember just long enough to criticize or condemn. Some say: "If they did the crime, let 'em do the time!"

    Yet some among us are very clearly called to perform this work, possibly as chaplains or as coordinators of outreach efforts that seek to let these prisoners know that they are cared for, that they have God-given dignity that their criminal actions have not erased, that they have a chance to contribute in a positive way to society.

    Some outreach efforts have grown over the years to embrace (and educate) those less inclined to participate in such ministry.

    In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the annual "Get on the Bus" program, started by nuns in 2000 and now operated by the Center for Restorative Justice Works, has enabled nearly 12,000 children to visit their incarcerated parents on Mother's and/or Father's Day throughout the state. It has since become a statewide ecumenical program.

    The effort involves numerous parish and Catholic school volunteers. They assemble care packages that include snacks, art supplies and toys for the children to pass the time as they head out on a long bus ride to see a parent. These volunteers, while not part of the actual prison visits, are faithful to the spirit of Matthew 25:36.

    I well recall visiting Los Angeles County Jail years ago with some musician friends. We performed a concert for 200 inmates. Judging by their enthusiastic applause and how one inmate stood up at the end to announce, on behalf of his fellow inmates, how grateful they were for the music and our presence, it had an impact.

    My wife, who sang, later said, "I know some of these men have done terrible things. But I looked at their faces and all I could think was, every one of them is a mother's son."

    Perhaps that is what helps motivate so many detention ministers who regularly visit, comfort and embrace those imprisoned. It matters not what the prisoners' crimes are. It matters only that, for even a few moments of the day, the prisoners are accorded a measure of dignity, humanity and love -- the love of Christ.

    That was the message Pope Francis brought last fall to inmates at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, the first visit ever made by a pope to an American prison.

    "This time in your life can only have one purpose: to give you a hand in getting back on the right road, to give you a hand to help you rejoin society," the pope told his Sunday morning audience.

    "All of us are part of that effort. All of us are invited to encourage, help and enable your rehabilitation."

    (Nelson is former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.)


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    Reaching those behind bars in the Year of Mercy

    By Effie Caldarola

    Catholic News Service

    With the proclamation of the Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has encouraged us to begin a profound and personal examination of our relationship to God's mercy.

    The ball is in our court. How will we respond? How will we truly "find the joy rediscovering and rendering fruitful God's mercy," as Pope Francis has urged us?

    We start by reviewing the corporal works of mercy. We recognize many of our actions on that list.

    We contribute to the parish food drive and share with our local food bank. When the shadow of death passes over a household, we're there with a casserole or a comforting word and a merciful presence at the burial. When illness strikes, we do what we can for the suffering.

    But how many of us can say we have visited the imprisoned?

    At this point on the list, we may hesitate. It's perhaps the most neglected work of mercy, but in these times when the rate of incarceration of U.S. citizens is higher than in any other country, we can't turn a blind eye.

    Prisons are alien to some of us. Some have never known someone who has been incarcerated.

    But according the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 1.5 million in the United States were in prison or jail in 2014 -- the most recent data available. The advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative puts that figure at 2.4 million when you take into account people in places such as tribal and local jails, as well immigration and other detention centers.

    Visiting the imprisoned can seem like a daunting task. Perhaps begin by placing yourself in solidarity with the imprisoned through imaginative prayer. How would you feel to be locked away, to be stripped of your reputation, your freedom, your loved ones?

    Imagine the feelings of failure, the desire to turn your life around, to have another chance, to find a spiritual home, to once again be free to live and love. This doesn't take into account the feelings of those wrongly convicted.

    To imagine some of this anguish, imagine Jesus as he is unjustly jailed and condemned to die. Sit with St. Paul as he courageously writes his letters from prison. Be with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a Birmingham jail. Pray for the journalists and human rights workers imprisoned and tortured by despotic regimes.

    After praying, imagine how you can show mercy. Phone your local chancery or pastoral center and ask about their prison ministry. By your inquiries, you underscore the need to prioritize this sometimes neglected ministry.

    Find out ways you can help the diocesan effort -- by visiting or writing letters, by contributing Bibles, books or study materials. Perhaps you could arrange for someone from prison ministry to speak to a parish group.

    The Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, are just one group that supplies journals and spiritual material to the imprisoned. Many Catholic publications offer their materials to prisons and would welcome your contribution to this effort.

    Amnesty International provides letter-writing opportunities for those who wish to support a political prisoner in places as remote as Saudi Arabia or China. They provide sample letters and all you need is an international stamp. By their letter-writing campaigns, they have helped free innocent people.

    Finally, be aware of what's going on politically. Does your state offer ample mental health services to prisoners? Most prisoners will one day walk the streets again. Does your state provide help in re-entering society? Are your prisons more than just warehouses, or are they places where rehabilitation takes place?

    Prisoners don't have political clout. But those of us who wish to show mercy can speak up for them with our elected officials.

    During this Year of Mercy, join Pope Francis, who washed the feet of prisoners, and joyfully stretch your efforts to serve "the least of these."

    (Caldarola a freelance writer and columnist with Catholic News Service. She was a field organizer with Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which helped repeal the death penalty in the Nebraska Legislature in 2015.)


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    Helping those in prisons seen and unseen

    By Marge Fenelon

    Catholic News Service

    During this Year of Mercy instituted by Pope Francis, we're called to become extensions of God's mercy to others, particularly through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy -- acts of charity and love toward others.

    But one corporal work of mercy may prove a bit more challenging to carry out -- visiting the imprisoned. How are we supposed to visit the imprisoned?

    No doubt, it's important to visit prisoners. They need and deserve Christian love and charity as much as anyone else. But there are different ways to be imprisoned. Just as there are physical bars that keep us locked in, there are mental, emotional and spiritual walls that keep us locked in as well.

    Fears, anxiety, depression and hopelessness are all "prisons" that hold us captive, keeping us from feeling the love of God. They cage us in, stopping us from becoming children of God and from becoming the person he intended us to be. We may not have committed a crime per se, but we are incarcerated just the same.

    Our Lord had compassion for those imprisoned by invisible walls as well as those imprisoned by real walls. There are numerous examples in Scripture, but the one that comes to mind is the story of the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5:1-20) cured of his affliction and released from his cell by Jesus.

    Jesus and his disciples had crossed the Sea of Galilee and entered Gerasa. There, he found a man who had long been tormented by demons and lived among the tombs. No manner of restraint could keep him from causing harm to himself or to others. The people of Gerasa feared him.

    Amid the man's shrieks, Jesus commanded the demons to leave him. At their request, Jesus sent the demons into a nearby swineherd. The swine then ran to the edge of a high cliff and jumped off, falling into the water and drowning. Only then, the man was again in his right mind and made capable of living a normal, productive life.

    The Gerasene man had been imprisoned by demons, kept in a jail of torment that prohibited him from living a life of love and fruitfulness with family and friends. Jesus visited him in this prison, so to speak, by seeing him, not as he was, but as he could and should be: a free and joyful child of God.

    So, too, should we see and help those who are imprisoned by a variety of walls. We should see them, not as they are, but for what they should and can be: free and joyful children of God. They need us to visit them in their prisons and to minister to them with compassion.

    We may not be able to cure them of their torment, as Jesus did with the Gerasene man, but we can be for them a reflection of the light in their darkness.

    (Fenelon is a freelance writer from Milwaukee and author of "Imitating Mary: Ten Marian Virtues for the Modern Mom.")


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    In September 2015, Pope Francis put into action the corporal work of mercy that tells us to visit the imprisoned. His speech to inmates at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia also exemplified how we should act toward the prisoner: with compassion, without reproach.

    "It is painful when we see prison systems that are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities," the pope said. "It is painful when we see people who think that only others need to be cleansed, purified, and do not recognize that their weariness, pain and wounds are also the weariness, pain and wounds of society."

    He said that "life means 'getting our feet dirty' from the dust-filled roads of life and history. All of us need to be cleansed, to be washed. All of us are being sought out by the Teacher, who wants to help us resume our journey. The Lord goes in search of us; to all of us he stretches out a helping hand."

    Jesus wants "no one to be excluded" from the table, he said. "The table that is spread for all and to which all of us are invited."


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