By Dale Recinella
Jesus’ poignant description of the judgment of the nations (Matthew 25:31-46) shows a great deal in common between ministry to the sick and ministry to those who have fallen outside the law. His rebuke, “For I was … ill and in prison, and you did not care for me,” bundles these two deep human needs. The shocked response of the obedient likewise places together the needs of the infirm and of the incarcerated: “When did we see you ill or in prison and visit you?”
My wife, Susan, and I hadn’t thought of this divinely affirmed symmetry in mission when we first stepped into formal volunteer ministry. It was the late 1980s, and AIDS was ravaging the homeless in our hometown of Tallahassee, FL. After experiencing a profound Christ Renews His Parish weekend at our church, we felt moved to respond to the crisis in the streets. Through our regional AIDS Service Organization, we took state training for this outreach. I trained to be a buddy for hands-on care to the afflicted, and Susan prepared to support their caregivers. That was as far as we could see.
Then, about a year later, we received a phone call from the evangelical chaplain of a men’s prison. He had heard about our work in the streets and wanted me to come to his prison to minister to men with AIDS. To my mind, this was an easy “No!” I had never imagined ministry inside a prison or jail and had no intention of doing so. In the confines of my own home, I dared to say that God could not ask this of me.
A few days later I came home to my wife and children assembled around the dinner table, each with their Bible open in front of them — to Matthew 25. In a lengthy — and for me uncomfortable — exchange, my children confronted me with the words of Jesus about ministering to the imprisoned. Ultimately, I relented, consoling myself that probably very few of the inmates would have AIDS.
After completing all the required training and formalities, I showed up for my first day as a pastoral minister to inmates with terminal illness. The line of blue-clad men waiting for an appointment stretched all the way around the chapel, from the front door to the rear gate. I was not pleased and marched straight into the chaplain’s office. “How is possible that all these men have terminal illness?” I demanded. He explained that it was not safe to post a notice that I was available just for men with AIDS. That could jeopardize the life of anyone who came for an appointment. So the signs merely stated that I was a Christian volunteer chaplain available to pray and counsel with anyone.
A chapel clerk had been assigned to set the appointments for my one-on-ones. “How many?” I asked curtly.
“About fifty,” he said with a smile. “But that’s not counting me. I have an appointment, too.”
My sarcasm was palpable. “And just what is your terminal condition?”
He looked me straight in the eye. “Sin. Sin is my terminal condition. And you will help me with that, right?”
In a very short time, the needs in the prison eclipsed my other activities. For sure there were bedside needs, even to the point of holding men in my arms as they died chained to their bedframe. But the predominant pastoral need, a thousand times with a thousand different nuances, was for healing. Emotional. Spiritual. Healing of memories and of relationships. Our dear friends Francis and Judith MacNutt were an invaluable resource for our training and understanding. They taught us the basics: Listen, love, and pray.
Over the last 30 years, we have experienced front-line pastoral ministry at every level of security and mode of confinement: male, female, state and local, federal, privatized, even ICE. Long-term solitary, prison hospitals, and the death house. The common denominator is always the same: the deep need for healing. Medical and mental health staffs deal with maladies within their specialties. The ordained provide sacramental pastoral care. The rest falls to those of us who are unordained but available, trained, and willing to be present.
The need is massive. Our nation incarcerates a higher percentage of its people than any other country in the world. Almost all of those incarcerated come with families. The victims of the crimes need healing, as do the traumatized loved ones of both victims and offenders. We need armies of well-trained and well-led Catholic laity to shoulder this effort, which ultimately, even in the darkest corners of our prisons and jails, is a burden of joy, love, and hope in the service of God’s restorative work. If you feel you might be called to this ministry, check with your local diocese or visit the Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition or Dismas Ministry.
As backdrop to this plight of humanity is what my friends the MacNutts call “the Big Healing,” the realignment of our systems — in prison ministry, our judicial and corrections systems — to better reflect God’s justice. This is captured in the social justice teaching of our Church.
All these needs are manifested in the work of chaplaincy to the sick and infirm, as well as to the incarcerated. Jesus weighed in on this 2,000 years ago. Let us all lock arms and lovingly support and encourage each other in his work.
Dale S. Recinella is a Catholic correctional chaplain in northern Florida. He has written several books, most recently When We Visit Jesus in Prison: A Guide for Catholic Ministry (ACTA Publications, 2016).