Recently I became aware of this issue after reviewing material from one case, where over 100 Catholic prisoners—who have been without a Catholic Chaplain for several months—have spoken out through the prison appeal process about their need for a priest.
This is an important issue, and in relation to prison ministry, an absolutely crucial issue; as being able to conduct a viable and organized lay prison ministry in a prison that does not have a Catholic Chaplain would be virtually impossible.
Consequently, on August 10th I wrote this open letter to the major Catholic entities with a stake in prison ministry.
This is an issue we will continue to follow.
August 10, 2010
Open Letter to: Cardinal Francis George, OMI, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops & Dr. Christian Kuhn, President of the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care
RE: Catholic Prison Chaplain Vacancies
Dear Cardinal George & Dr. Kuhn:
The importance of the Catholic prison chaplain—whether providing pastoral care to those in prison, or coordinating the prison ministry of the Catholic laity—is absolutely vital.
I was a criminal—thief and robber—for 20 years and served 12 of those years in maximum security federal and state prisons. I was transformed through education, many years developing and working with criminal transformative organizations, a strong marriage, studying the social teaching—the only body of thought potent enough to trump the criminal/carceral world cultural narrative—and God’s grace from becoming Catholic.
Some cogent advice from a former prison minister, Rev. Thomas J. Euteneuer:
"For many years I was involved in prison ministry…
"Ultimately, these environments, full of criminals, are also seedbeds for the works of the Evil One and therefore are in dire need of Christian ministry. The idea that a person goes to prison to become "reformed" is an absurdity. Oftentimes they become confirmed in their criminal ways.
"I would ask … anyone in prison ministry, to be of good cheer, fully confident that your work is blessed by God because it is a work that Christ explicitly asked His Church to carry out. If the "official" Church does not pay proper attention to this work of the Gospel, then those in authority will be held accountable before the Judgment Seat of God. Ours, however, is not to agonize over what others are not doing, but to do what we are supposed to do with greater fervor, asking God to sanctify us in the process." 1
The prison first enters Western consciousness through Genesis and the story of Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery and ultimately becoming a prisoner.
"Joseph’s prison was the “Great Prison,” the hnrt wr at Thebes, present-day Luxor, whose existence is unrecorded before the period of the Middle Kingdom. [2050-1786 B.C.]" 2
Visiting those in prison is given us as a work of corporal mercy by Christ, when he teaches us: “…I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25: 36)
The prison comes from the Catholic Church:
"My own conclusion is that the prison as we know it in the West originated in the penitential practice of the early church and in primitive monastic communities. With some reservations, I argue that it thus bears a meaning as valid and necessary as penance and monasticism themselves. Perhaps a more restrained way of phrasing it would be that since the contemporary prison is in many ways a Catholic innovation, whatever hope it may have as a locus and vehicle of criminal justice lies within the history we are about to survey." 3
While I am not specifically aware of the situation regarding the availability of Catholic Chaplains in prisons internationally or nationally, the situation in California is that there are some vacancies—four according to the most recent list of September 2009—and in one case, that of the California State Prison at Solano, several Catholic prisoners (166 prisoners signed the appeal) have been without a priest since April 9, 2009 and have filed an appeal.
Given the difficulties of moving quickly in issues involving prisons—and especially during a time of great economic difficulty which the state of California is currently suffering under, with hiring freezes in effect—as well as the difficult nature of the prison chaplaincy itself, it is reasonable to expect delays filling vacancies.
However, the importance of this ministry to the Church, which alone has the power of a social teaching which can trump that of the criminal/carceral world cultural narrative shaping and driving many criminal’s allegiance to that world, cannot be stated emphatically enough.
At perhaps the most crucial points in Our Lord’s ministry on earth, his crucifixion and resurrection, penitential criminals played major roles—St. Mary of Magdalene and St. Dismas—and it is to those penitential criminal saints, in their names, and in the name of Our Lord who showed us the way, that we need to do all we can to ensure prisoners have access to a priest.
David H. Lukenbill
1. Rev. Thomas J. Euteneuer, Euteneuer Replies in Letters to Editor, New Oxford Review, May 2010. Retrieved June 10, 2010 from http://www.newoxfordreview.org/letters.jsp?did=0510-letters
2. Edward M. Peters, “Prison before the prison: The ancient and medieval worlds”, In Morris, N. & Rothman, D. J. Eds., The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 9.
3. Andrew Skotnicki, Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), p. 6.
Cc: Sister Susan Van Baalen, North America Representative (ICCPC)
Bishop Jaime Soto, Sacramento, California-USA, Catholic Diocese
Mr. Paul E. Rogers, President, American Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association
Mr. David A. Lichter, Executive Director, National Association of Catholic Chaplains