Sixty-five chaplains who serve in New York state correctional facilities, gathered for three days this week at Mount Saint Alphonsus Retreat Center in Esopus, N.Y.
These women and men gather annually for a three-day program of prayer and instruction; and for that special kind of support and understanding that comes from colleagues in ministry. Areas they explored this week included bilingual liturgies, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in the context of the correctional system and the impact of the growing presence of immigrants in their midst. On the final morning they had an informal conversation with New York State Division of Probation and Correctional Alternative Director Robert Maccarone.
I write about the gathering because I was privileged to lead the day of prayer the chaplains had on Tuesday. They kindly invited me to offer two presentations during the day and to preside and preach at their late afternoon eucharistic liturgy.
I was willing to, and did, prepare some thoughts to share with them. I spoke about the ministry of the Lord in the Gospel of Luke, and invited them to reflect on their experience of ministry against that background.
My hope was that through the ideas I offered and the questions I raised I could invite them to share with one another some of their own thinking about, and experience of, the ministry to which they are so deeply committed.
The chaplains were ready, willing and totally able to do that. It was a special grace in my life that day to hear the conversation. People spoke simply, lovingly and honestly about what their lives are like — the joys and sorrows, the breakthroughs and frustrations, their progress or lack thereof, their dreams for the future. They listened to one another with a striking attentiveness.
It’s not possible here to go into great detail about all that was said that day, but I do want to name some of the themes that emerged in the discussion: the dignity of every human person; the possibilities of conversion and redemption for all of us; the example of the Lord who sought out the poor and the despised, befriended them and ate at their tables; the inspiration and encouragement the chaplains derive from the lively faith of many inmates.
There were 10 chaplains from our diocese in the assembly: three laywomen, one layman, four permanent deacons and two priests. It was a pleasure to be with them for many reasons. Among those reasons was the reminder they were of the changing face of pastoral ministry in our church in recent years. Two months before I came to Rochester, Bishop Joseph Hogan appointed a pastoral team to serve at the Elmira Correctional Facility: Sister Josepha Twomey, SSJ, Father Daniel Tormey and Michael Stanley. Dan was already serving at the facility. To the very best of my knowledge, Sister Twomey was the first woman to serve as chaplain in a facility for men, and Michael Stanley was the first full-time lay chaplain in the New York state system.
A closing note: One of the hopes expressed by the chaplains was for more volunteer involvement in ministry to inmates. They would love it if members of parishes in which correctional facilities are located could be more involved in this rich apostolate.
They know, and so do I, that in their circumstances matching volunteers with opportunities is not always easy. But they are hopeful that we can make some progress.
I want to explore the issue more thoroughly. In the meantime I ask you, if there is a state correctional facility in or near your parish, to think about the relationship between your parish community and ministry in the facility. Is there a relationship between the two? If not, do you think we could explore the possibility for such a connection?
Peace to all.