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Archives Diocese expands outreach to prisons

Dec. 16, 2015

By Sister Donna Franklin
Diocesan director, Catholic Charities

Meeting with the prison chaplains provided an opportunity, for Bishop Terry LaValley, Father Jay Seymour and Prison minsitryme to listen to the concerns, the insights, the creative ideas and the realities of working in the prison environment. Observations regarding the challenges faced by the victims and their families and the families of persons who are incarcerated were highlighted.

The whole concept of prison ministry is complex. Multiple layers of needs exist. Consider the reality of the compassion and outreach that victims and their families deserve. Do we realize that individuals who work every day in the stressful environment of a prison, corrections officers, chaplains, administrative staff and others live in our parishes?

The North Country landscape is dotted with prison facilities. Yet, there appears to be an invisible aspect to our recognition of the impact of the prison industry on our parishes and communities.

The prisons are there but how often do we think about the human beings who are incarcerated or about their victims? What type of outreach does the community have for the children whose parents are incarcerated? These questions challenge our commitment to living out the corporal works of mercy.

The reality of the number of prisons in the diocese and the number of people employed in this industry challenges our ability to see and hear the needs of our brothers and sisters. Have you ever thought bout the fact that there is a high rate of divorce, depression, anxiety and domestic violence in many families of corrections officers and others who work in the prisons. If these families looked in your parish bulletin would they find listed any support groups or programs?

One of the suggestions from the prison chaplains presents us with an easy way to begin raising our awareness of the need for prison ministry. The suggestion was to ask individuals and parish communities, as well as, the prisoners and those who work in the prisons to pray for one another.

To achieve this goal Catholic Charities in collaboration with the Diocesan Office for Evangelization will be providing each parish with bookmarks. Each bookmark will have the prayer from the Paulist Prison Ministry and a prayer for prison chaplains. This second prayer was written by Marika Donders, Diocesan Office for Evangelization.

Prison BookmarkThe bookmarks will be provided by Catholic Charities to the parishes by March 25, 2016. That is the Feast of St. Dismas. St. Dismas is the name of the Good Thief. The picture on the bookmark comes from the stained glass windows at St. Dismas Church in the Clinton Correctional Facility.

The prayer is included on this page. This will give you a chance to begin praying for all of our brothers and sisters whose lives are impacted by the prisons. You are invited to say this prayer each day in solidarity with the victims and their families.

Thinking about prison ministry challenges us to look at our own biases, feelings, fears and ability to believe that every human being can be reconciled with a forgiving God. Praying for all whose lives are changed when they or a family member becomes a victim of a crime calls us to reach out in compassion and understanding.
Pope Francis has called for a Year of Mercy. This call to mercy provides us with the opportunity to look around us and see who is on the margins of our community.

Mercy enables us to reach out to the disenfranchised, those on the outside and make sure that no one is invisible. We are called to see and hear the needs around us. We are invited to pray about what we are seeing and hearing. Then, we will be compelled to find ways to act based on the lessons we have learned through Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel.

For more information or to make a donation contact: Catholic Charities (315) 393-2255 or ccdirect@wadhams.edu. All checks can be made out to Catholic Charities, 6866 State Highway 37, Ogdensburg, NY 13669.



‘I am a Catholic prison chaplain’

By Deacon Thomas Kilian
Chaplain, Ogdensburg and Gouverneur correctional facilities

Advent, the holidays, are a tough time at the prison.  Thanksgiving and Christmas see the highest rate of suicide, among inmates AND among staff who work at Correctional facilities.

It’s hard to be locked up when you have little kids and a family on the outside.  It’s hard to be in prison when everyone and everything is screaming about joy and peace and love and all you know is pain, a pain that is always there and comes from so many people and places.Kilian

Yet, prison fits so well with Advent.  Advent has its desert and its Baptist crying out, “Make straight the way.”  So too, prison has its wilderness, an empty void with wild beasts and demons who lurk and haunt and seek to possess.  This is where I minister. I am a Catholic prison chaplain.

The demonic takes many forms:  gangs and drugs and violence are there at every turn.  The demonic inhabits all the failure and missed chances and broken promises made from the incarcerated to their families and to society and from society and family back to them.

The prisons that mark almost every nook and cranny of the Diocese of Ogdensburg are places of tremendous suffering and hopelessness. 

Just a few weeks ago, at one of the Ogdensburg prisons was a murder of an inmate by two other inmates.  Yesterday, an inmate was taken to the hospital, now on life support after he attempted to kill himself.  He had gotten a “Dear John” letter from his wife and then hung himself to die.  There are slashings and stabbings, and near death after drug overdoses or inmate on staff assault or staff on inmate mistreatment. 

The desert I work in is a place of difficult and intractable addiction along with serious mental and emotional illness – problems that overwhelm limited budgets and staffs.

Prison fits so well with Advent.  Advent has its desert and its Baptist crying out, ‘Make straight the way.’  So too, prison has its wilderness, an empty void with wild beasts and demons who lurk and haunt and seek to possess.  This is where I minister. I am a Catholic prison chaplain.

I have been a prison chaplain for almost 20 years.  Very early on, I realized that incarcerating a human being does great damage to them.  While we as a community may need to deprive people of their freedom in order to protect others in the community – it’s how we do it, with  solitary confinement and cells and locked gates and razor wire and assigning a DIN number and making one wear only green.  All these conspire to erode and wear away at a person’s sense of dignity before God.

Taking one’s basic freedoms away damages the soul of those imprisoned and those whose job it is to keep people locked up and under control.

Many inmates deal with this damage to their soul by numbing themselves through the use of drugs or pornography or other types of contraband they can get their hands on.  Some protect themselves by joining a gang or fashioning homemade weapons. 

Those who work at the prison take the pain and damage home with them and it often affects their marriages, their children, their home life. 

Unless the damage to soul is recognized and acknowledged and remedies are applied so healing can take place, the desert that prison is can become a place of death not just physically but spiritually as well!

When Pope Francis was elected pope, one of the first places he went was to a prison.  He told the prisoners that we have to look to Jesus and see how he chose a path of humility and service.  Jesus decided to become a man and as a man to be a slave even unto death on a cross. 

The pope called this emptying out – the way of love, a life choice, a way of being – this path of humility and solidarity.  The pope called this way of Jesus a choice for being small, of staying with the lowliest and with the marginalized, staying among all of us who are sinners!  A way of life that comes from love and from the heart of God!” (Address of Pope Francis at the Cathedral of Cagliari to Prisoners and the Poor on Sunday September 22, 2013)

This morning I had to tell an 18-year-old man that his father had died.  The young man sat in my office and cried uncontrollably for over an hour.  I held him, prayed with him, fed him the Eucharist and connected him with his family who also grieved – trying to bring the consolation and sustenance of Jesus and his Church, the Catholic faith to someone who lives in a desert and was just given one more burden to bear.

A couple weeks ago, a Lieutenant secretly came to my office and told me his pastor had asked him to be a Eucharistic Minister but he was going to say “no”.  Even though he and his wife are active in his parish and his children are all in Church school and he is honored to be asked. He was absolutely unworthy because he was a leader among the correction officers and needed to be strong and tough before the inmates.

He didn’t feel the kind of work he did made him worthy to touch the Holy Eucharist and give it to others.  I know this man, widely respected by both staff and inmates.  There is no person more worthy – and so for a couple hours – together we wrestled with his conscience.   I hope he told his pastor, “yes”.

I spend my days helping young men get over the guilt they feel over the bad they have done. 

I spend my days helping people cope with addictions and their cost. 

I spend my days helping not just Catholics, but Muslims and Jews and Rastafarians and Santerias and Wiccans and Native Americans and Buddhists and Protestants and agnostics and atheists try to make some semblance of why they are in prison and how to make their choices and their lives better.

I spend my days helping people to prepare for the sacraments and to understand God’s word and to make things right with their wife or their parents or their babies.

Every week, I gather with some to celebrate the Eucharist – the most  lively, most sung through, most actively participated in Masses around.

I spend my days helping desperate and depressed and suffering people find that spark of light inside themselves that points to Someone Else who wants to be born in them so they might know His mercy, so that they might have real life! I spend my days like John the Baptist, helping them discover that place inside them, pointing them to that Lamb who not only takes away their sins but helps them forward, to a future and a promise God wants for them.

I am not unique.  I am humbled by holy men and women, saints really, who labor in the prisons of the North Country so that those who are incarcerated may know their true dignity as sons and daughters of God and they might be accompanied by a minister of Jesus and His Church so to taste of God’s mercy and love.

Pope Francis once said, “ You cannot be a Christian if you do not know how to cry… You cannot be a follower of Jesus if you do not have tears in your eyes.” 

The inmates I work with, the correction officers and staff who work at my side, and especially my brother and sister chaplains who pour themselves out every single day and night – they have shown me how to cry.”
Pray for them…Pray for the incarcerated and their families - in this desert, making straight God’s way.

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