Although he had performed field work at a jail during his diaconal formation, newly ordained Deacon Alberto Pacete did not see himself as a prison chaplain.
Instead, he was debating whether to serve in a hospital or a hospice. During the time just before his 2008 ordination, Deacon Pacete noted that God weighed in on his decision.
During a March 6 interview, he recalled that something amazing happened on his way to tell Deacon John Brasley, diocesan jail-ministry coordinator, that he was not interested in a chaplaincy position at Elmira Correctional and Reception Center. To demonstrate his lack of interest, he had purposely left late for the appointment and had taken the long way from his Irondequoit home to the diocesan Pastoral Center in Gates. Despite his best efforts, Deacon Pacete wound up arriving early for the meeting because every traffic light he encountered during the trip was green.
"Wow, it was like a revelation," Deacon Pacete remarked, noting that he felt as if God were trying to tell him something. "I went in and told him (Deacon Brasley), ‘OK, I will consider it.’"
Upon further reflection, he said, an essay he had previously written based on Isaiah 61:1 should have given him a clue about his true calling: "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners."
"I thought that was pretty good that I would end up in prison," Deacon Pacete said with a chuckle. "In retrospect … I was being guided."
Deacons as well as religious and lay volunteers serving in prison ministry throughout the diocese are following Jesus’ call to serve this forgotten population of society, Deacon Brasley noted.
"We don’t like to think about people in jail or prison," he added. "People say (prisoners) deserve to be punished and society is not safe unless they are incarcerated."
But, he observed, Jesus calls us to show compassion to the least in our society, as evidenced by a line from one of the parables in the Gospel of Matthew: "I was in prison and you came to me" (Mt 25:35-36).
"Jesus calls us to do this," Deacon Brasley pointed out. "One of the corporal acts of mercy is to visit those in prison."
Six of the 104 deacons working in the diocese are employed by the New York State Prison system as chaplains, said Deacon David Palma, director of the diocesan Office of Deacon Personnel. Others accompany parishioners on visits to such facilities as the Monroe County Jail in downtown Rochester or the Monroe Correctional Facility on East Henrietta Road in Brighton.
A former public defender in Steuben County, Deacon Brasley said that he chose to work in jail ministry through his parish in Bath. When a part-time position for a jail-ministry-coordinator opened at the diocesan level, he decided to apply.
"That just expanded over time," he said of his work in prison ministry. "The church has an obligation to look out for the least and the lonely."
Deacon Pacete, a native of the Philippines, said that working at a maximum-security prison is both challenging and rewarding. He counsels prisoners and connects them with family, while at the same time always making security a top priority.
"It’s hard to do the work of God in Caesar’s house," he remarked. "You’re kind of straddling between being friendly to the prisoners and friendly to the people who guard them. … Security is the main thing. But again, we’re there to comfort and relieve, and not just physically. We try to get them closer to God."
Deacon Nemesio "Vellon" Martínez’s has been trying to bring the incarcerated closer to God since he began his decade-long involvement with the Spanish Jail Ministry at Monroe County Jail. Participating in this ministry led him to work as a prison chaplain at Livingston Correctional Facility in Sonyea, Livingston County.
Each week during his time with the Spanish Jail Ministry, Deacon Martínez and with other Hispanics from city parishes visited Monroe County Jail to offer prisoners spiritual counseling and the Liturgy of the Word. While he initially had his doubts about whether he would continue in such a ministry, he said he ended up falling in love with it.
"They were looking forward to seeing us on Sundays," Deacon Martínez said of the prisoners. "If we couldn’t make it, we’d feel guilty because they were looking forward to Sunday nights. (Liturgy) was a great thing for them, the only chance for them to get together."
In his work at the Livingston County facility, Deacon Martínez said that he really feels like he is making a difference in the lives of the prisoners.
"These guys don’t have a voice," he said. "I am their voice, their arms, their everything. … Chaplains, not only the Roman Catholic chaplains, we are like a piece of heaven falling from the sky for these guys. We’re the only ones who really listen to them, the only ones who really help them."
Sometimes, that help is simply connecting a prisoner with a family member, he said.
"We connect them with the administration and the outside community," Deacon Martínez noted. "They need to be connected even though they’re behind bars. (Incarceration) doesn’t mean the end of the world for them."
Providing such connections allows transition programs a better chance of successfully returning prisoners to society, which is an important step, said Father Bob Werth, a sacramental minister at the Monroe Correctional Facility. If prisoners don’t immediately connect with a parish upon their release, it’s likely they won’t at all, he added.
"That’s the weakness of the (justice) system we have," Father Werth remarked. "But they’re (prisoners) so good. … They’re invested in what (religious staff) are doing."
That investment may stem from prisoners’ desire for people on the outside to know that there’s more to them than their crimes and that they don’t just represent the label society places on them, noted Sister of St. Joseph Judy Greene, chaplain for Monroe County Jail and Monroe Correctional Facility.
"(These) people want you to know there’s more here," she added.
And helping the incarcerated maintain connections with people outside of the prison walls is one of a chaplain’s most important duties, Sister Greene noted.
"The thing that very often inmates will say at services is they’re so grateful when other people come in," she said, and not just deacons or priests, but the lay people who often visit. "They (prisoners) need so much support."