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Catholic clergy, laity heed Gospel’s call to minister to prisoners

February 20, 2015
Christina Gray

They may represent a minority among faith-based prison ministry programs, but Catholic priests and parishioners called to minister to the incarcerated say they are inspired by the Gospel to spend time among those Jesus likely considered in his command to love “the least of my brothers.”

“Matthew 25:36 is a big thing for me,” St. Dominic parishioner Steve Mariccini told Catholic San Francisco on Feb. 12. The verse reads in part, “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Mariccini, 58, and his wife Sylvia, 57, go from full-time jobs straight to the San Francisco County Jail on Wednesday evenings once a month where they talk, pray and meditate with the women of Pod C, the jail’s psychiatric unit.

The Mariccinis are among a dozen carefully-screened and trained parishioners from St. Dominic that serve on its jail outreach ministry, one of two known parish-based jail ministries in the archdiocese, according to restorative justice ministry coordinator Julio Escobar. His office serves as a liaison between the parish and the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. The other is St. Hilary Parish in Tiburon which assists Jesuit Father George Williams, Catholic chaplain at nearby San Quentin State Prison.

“I consider the inmates no different than me,” said Sylvia, who joined her husband as a volunteer in the county jail after the grade-school sweethearts reconnected and married nine years ago. “They are loved equally by God, and I want my presence to show them that there is hope and purpose for each and every one of us.”

Working in two-person teams, volunteers like the Mariccinis offer prayer services including Lectio Divina to jailed men and women who come from every faith background and sometimes none at all. They integrate prayer from saints who themselves were incarcerated or had major conversions. They sing and pray for each other.

Volunteers bring rosaries sometimes, or reading materials. But the ministry is foremost a ministry of presence said Deacon Chuck McNeil who started and still manages the St. Dominic team.

“We try not to be religious goods pushers,” he said, adding that those best suited to prison ministry are those without an agenda.

“Some Catholics feel they have to catechize inmates, have to preach morality or teach the rosary,” he said. “What gets through here is presence and prayer, not preaching.”

People need to talk, especially to someone outside “the system,” he said. He described weekly conversations through a pinhole with one straight-jacketed, high profile criminal who had been in isolation for a year.

“It’s a little bit like confession,” he said.

Prison ministry was “the most faraway idea” to Deacon McNeil during formation. “I thought of myself as pretty square,” he said. He’d never been arrested or known anyone that was. But a priest encouraged him to try it, and he found a calling of sorts. “I discovered I was very comfortable with the inmates,” he said.

Priests, deacons and laity alike describe prison ministry a “calling” that helps them live out the Gospel as Jesus has directly asked them to do.

Ministering to the imprisoned is recognized by the Catholic Church as one of the seven corporal works of mercy. In Matthew 25:36 Jesus himself identifies with the imprisoned and during his crucifixion he also ministered to repentant criminals next to him on the cross.

At San Quentin, Father Williams says Mass from inside a locked cage inside death row.

“When I raise the host I don’t see heinous murderers standing in front of me, I see human beings,” he said. “If his body was not given up for them, too, then what difference would our faith make?”

As a modern Catholic prison chaplain, Father Williams represents a minority in the United States and a significant challenge to the church. Only 13 percent of the 1,474 state prison chaplains that responded to the Pew survey in 2012 identified themselves as Catholic. Nearly three-quarters of them are evangelical Protestants aided by a legion of lay volunteers.

Catholic inmates may be more likely to drift away from the faith without a solid Catholic presence that includes lay volunteers to assist and supplement a chaplain’s work.

“I wish there were more Catholic-based prison ministries,” said Father Williams.

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