Catholic Prison Ministry: Light at the End of the Tunnel

Dr Ruth Webber addressing delegates at the prison chaplains gathering in Sydney last month.

Dr Ruth Webber addressing delegates at the prison chaplains gathering in Sydney.

Prison ministry has an important role in providing genuine human contact and a place where prisoners can interact in a positive way with each other and with the ministry team.

Dr Ruth Webber spoke about the integral role of prison ministry during the National Prison Chaplains Gathering between 24–26 September 2015.

Focusing on ‘the restorative practices employed in prison ministry and the ways in which they assist prisoners towards healing and transformation’, Dr Webber said that ‘while it may not be essential, I believe if prisoners can reconnect with their faith and with the spiritual and religious part of themselves this restorative process will be easier as they embrace the Christian message of hope and forgiveness’.

Touching on the announcement by Pope Francis that we will celebrate a ‘Year of Mercy’ in 2016, the theme of the Gathering was ‘Prison Ministry – The Face of Mercy’. The gathering was supported by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference through the Australian Catholic Prisoners Pastoral Care Council (ACPPCC). Bishop Terry Brady attended the gathering as Chairperson of the ACPPCC. 

Insights provided by Dr Webber were of interest to delegates given Dr Webber’s research paper in 2014 about Catholic Prison Ministry in Victoria.

Prison chaplains from across Australia and Oceania gathered at Mary MacKillop Place for the conference.

Prison chaplains from across Australia and Oceania gathered at Mary MacKillop Place for the conference.

Detailing the differences between restorative justice and restorative practice, Dr Webber said, ‘The three primary stakeholders in restorative justice are the victims, offenders and their communities of care. The aim for the parties is to obtain reparation, take responsibility and achieve reconciliation. Basically all parties involved in an offence come together to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implication for the future’.

‘Restorative justice seeks to restore the social fabric and to mend the harm. The act becomes very personal and very real, as the offender is brought to understand that his/her actions have harmed real people,’ she added.

Restorative practice has many of the features of restorative justice but does not necessarily involve the perpetrator and the victim coming together face-to-face.

Comparatively, ‘the aim of restorative practice is to foster in prisoners: empathy for others including victims of crime, acceptance of the impact of their crime, development of self worth and a desire for reconciliation and change’.

Dr Webber said the outcome of prison ministry is seen in the prisoner’s efforts to change with a view of reconnecting with family members and the wider community. Reinforcing the important role of the prison chaplain, Dr Webber said, ‘chaplains seek to form a relationship with prisoners built on trust and acceptance’. This helps on the journey of self-restoration and building self worth.

‘Prison chaplains provide a context in which prisoners feel safe to commence the restorative process. Chaplains do this by providing pastoral care and spiritual succour for prisoners and sometimes their families. This involves personal relationship and grief counselling particularly in times of crisis such as family breakdown, illness, trauma and bereavement.’

Sister Jackie Atabong attended the prison chaplains gathering from Cameroon, Africa.

Sister Jackie Atabong attended the prison chaplains gathering from Cameroon, Africa.

‘Prison can be a lonely time for prisoners, especially as they are living in close proximity to people who they may not like or have much in common. Some have no family or friends to visit them. The chaplains’ positive and supportive approach helps lessen prisoners’ sense of isolation and loneliness,’ Dr Webber explained.

In addition, ‘the emotional support that family members received from chaplains cushioned them against the negative effects of the traumatic and isolating experience of having a child or spouse incarcerated’. They also assisted family members to deal with their anger, frustrations and isolation.

Part of the restorative practice is to help prisoners to face up to the crimes that led them to prison, developing empathy for the victims and remorse for the harm done is part of this process.

Other key parts of the restorative justice practice are forgiveness and faith, gaining self-respect and self-worth and restoring the prisoner’s social networks.

At the time of the gathering in Sydney, Pope Francis visited a prison in Philadelphia on route to the World Meeting of Families. He said, ‘it is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain or to offer new possibilities’.

Following the keynote address, delegates highlighted the importance of developing a voice around restorative practice with inmates. Delegates also acknowledged the important collegiality and support that the gathering provided. Connections were also established between prison chaplains from Oceania including New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Samoa.

Sister Jackie Atabong, Vice-President of the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care (ICCPPC), attended the gathering from Cameroon, Africa. Sr Jackie was attending the International Prison Chaplains Association conference held in Sydney in the days preceding the local gathering from 19 – 24 September.

During the Gathering, discussions also took place about celebrating the Year of Mercy with a focus on the role of prison ministry during 2016. Efforts will be progressed to help prison chaplains mark the Jubilee for Prisoners’, which Pope Francis announced will take place on 6 November 2016.

Patrick Aboud, Governor of Long Bay Correctional Centre, NSW.

Patrick Aboud, Governor of Long Bay Correctional Centre, NSW.

Patrick Aboud, Governor of Long Bay Correctional Centre, also addressed delegates about the role of the prison chaplain and the competencies required to carry out the role.

‘The prison chaplain provides practical and emotional support. This involves personal relationships, grief counselling, particularly in times of crises such as family breakdowns, illnesses, trauma and bereavement,’ he said.

‘Prison can be a very difficult place. It’s very stressful, it can become confusing and you can feel alone.’

‘The chaplain has expertise is special areas, moral and spiritual counselling, which distinguishes the chaplain from all other professions. The chaplains concern for the suffering and the imprisoned, their concern for people, the prisoners and also the staff has always been integral to the Christian message. Relationships between people, communities, families and marriages, gives the chaplain a close relationship with people. The chaplain may therefore be seen as an extension into the prison of a religious community; spiritually and socially.’

‘Chaplains, as members of the developmental teams in the correctional centres, ensure that the needs of the whole person are being met,’ he added.

Prison chaplains ‘bridge a gap between the religious and the secular world’ and ‘you endeavour to build a network of pastorally aware and therapeutically appropriate people who can encourage physical and emotional, personal and spiritual growth and healing in the wider community’, Mr Aboud concluded.

Source :

Aoife Connors