In some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples before his passion and death, he implored them to act with charity and mercy to all of their brothers and sisters. “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me. ... Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me” (Mt 25:40, 45). Among the examples of mercy given by Jesus is visiting the imprisoned (cf. Mt 25:36).
This is a call that is passed down to followers of Jesus Christ through the centuries. In our day, in a particular way, this calling is fulfilled by dedicated laypeople and religious as well as priests and deacons who serve as chaplains at jails and prisons all over the world.
As with any vocation that is sincerely lived out, God’s grace infuses these chaplains, and even the challenges themselves can be seen as blessings of their ministry.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement in 2000 entitled “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective On Crime and Criminal Justice.” This document profoundly explains the position of the bishops of the United States on the importance of pastoral care of the imprisoned and their families.
“We know that faith has a transforming effect on all our lives,” the document states. “Therefore, rehabilitation and restoration must include the spiritual dimension of healing and hope. The Church must stand ready to help offenders discover the Good News of the Gospel and how it can transform their lives.”
‘Holy Spirit is at work’
Deacon Roy Forsythe was profoundly affected by an early experience in prison ministry, one that brought home to him the importance of ministering to those in prison. Deacon Forsythe was invited to participate in a closing service of a retreat weekend at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, commonly called “Big Mac” or “The Walls” by inmates. This is a maximum security prison, largely holding violent criminals convicted of serious offenses. It also is the prison in Oklahoma where all executions are performed. This was not your typical retreat weekend.
About 20 inmates were invited to the retreat — Deacon Forsythe described them as the “baddest of the bad,” who had been identified as leaders in the prison community. One inmate in particular stood out to him at the closing service. A 21-year old man, this inmate had never met either of his parents, and he confided that during the retreat weekend, he was hugged for the first time in his life, and for the first time had another human being say “I love you” to him.
“He was serving a life sentence for double murder,” Deacon Forsythe said. “His story brought tears to my eyes, and I knew that someday I would need to try and help other young men and women to not find themselves in a similar situation.”
The services prison chaplains seek to provide are varied, and it is a challenge to be the minister that each inmate needs. However, chaplaincy is a call to a very specific form of service to a very marginalized population; such a vocation is tailor-made for deacons, who are by definition called to be servants in a special way.
“For those who are Catholic, we bring the Eucharist and provide copies of ‘The Word Among Us’ that are provided to us at no charge,” Deacon Forsythe said. “We also bring Bible studies, spiritual books and a program of RCIA for those who wish to join our Church.”
The call to prison ministry is not one to be taken lightly, Deacon Forsythe said, and it is one that few are able to fulfill.
“I have had many who come along for a visit to the jail to see if this ministry is for them, but few ultimately say ‘yes.’”
There can be a certain degree of hesitation, even fear, that comes from the idea of working intimately and privately with potentially dangerous people. But Deacon Forsythe insists that in this ministry, the Holy Spirit is at work, and we must move beyond whatever fear we have in order to serve these inmates as they deserve.
“Some are fearful about going into a prison, but I can tell you that in 10 years, I have never been in a situation that elicited fear,” Deacon Forsythe said. “All the inmates we see have requested to see us, so the Holy Spirit is already at work.”
The joy that is experienced by these inmates as they pray to invite Jesus Christ into their hearts is palpable, and it is something the ministers are able to share with them, he said.
“Every human being is a child of God and deserves our love, our care and our respect. But for the grace of God, many of us could be in their situation,” Deacon Forsythe observed.
There are certainly challenges that arise in this ministry, and challenges that are inherent in it.
“The challenge is always to lead another human being to the foot of the cross. To lead them from skepticism to belief, from doubt to belief, from fear to belief — to take the leap of faith in spite of their future.”
Mercy to the marginalized
A deacon’s ministry is not meant only to be at the service of the priest in the liturgy. The deacon is to serve the people of God at all times, in all places. Dispensing God’s mercy as chaplains to the imprisoned is one way deacons can live their vocation among the most marginalized.
“I feel deacons can best serve the Lord by working outside the walls of the sanctuary,” said Deacon Richard Tolcher, coordinator of prison and jail ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
In addition to his role as the coordinator of the archdiocese’s prison ministry efforts, Deacon Tolcher has served as a Catholic chaplain at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for 13 years.
“I had a chance to build a Catholic community behind the prison walls. It is special because I am privileged to serve men and women on the periphery of society.”
The inmates to whom he is ministering are generally open to listen and participate, Deacon Tolcher said.
“They recognize that faith-filled visitors give of their time and energy. In some ways, they are very protective and very open to God’s message and his messengers.”
Deacon Tolcher feels that this Jubilee Year of Mercy has invigorated ministry to those on the peripheries of society.
“I recognize that in the Year of Mercy, I am directly involved in dealing mercifully with the marginalized. I draw my strength from Matthew 25:43-45 wherein I see Jesus in those incarcerated,” he said. “I stay focused on the human dignity of all men and women.”
Having been involved with work in youth detention facilities and alternative schools for juvenile delinquents since early in his career, Deacon Tolcher said that the transition to ministry with adult inmates in prisons and jails came easily.
In his vocation as a deacon, Deacon Tolcher recognizes the special role he plays in dispensing the mercy of God.
Being “ordained as a deacon for approximately 29 years has helped me realize my individual calling to serve those who need God’s mercy.”
Paul Senz writes from Oregon.