GREENVILLE — Ministering to Catholics among the 30,000 prisoners in South Carolina is a daunting task, even though Jesus called the people who do so blessed. To help, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Charleston is holding a series of workshops designed to guide parish prison ministers.
At the Piedmont Deanery training session on July 25 at St. Anthony of Padua School, 50 attendees heard that the role of such ministers is to help restore dignity and hope to the inmate and to act as messengers of reconciliation.
“Remember that you are not there for counseling,” said Deacon James P. Hyland, regional coordinator for Catholic Charities for the Lowcountry Deanery and diocesan prison ministry coordinator. “We should be offering advice from our own lived experience. They [inmates] may ask you to help them learn their Catholic prayers again, and saying the rosary as a group usually works well.”
Hyland is a former Rock Hill police officer who is charged with training prison ministers how to deal with offenders, manage the state prison and jail environments, and to assist with worship services and the sacraments. He said that Christians have a biblical mandate to visit prisons.
“It’s up to us to bring the church to them, because they can’t come to us,” he said.
The diocese has a policy about prison ministry, according to Hyland, including rules about the nucleus of the faith: inmates are not to serve as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, for instance, and Communion services in the absence of a priest must follow canonical guidelines. He also spoke about the long tradition of prison ministry in the Catholic Church and the hope of his agency that such ministries will become an integral part of every parish.
He was aided in this hope by Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone, who has promised to celebrate a Christmas Eve 2009 Mass for inmates at Lieber Correctional Institution, a maximum-security facility in Ridgeland and the site of South Carolina’s only Death Row.
Terry Buquet, a victim’s advocate for Catholic Charities, also made a presentation at the workshop on a program for children of inmates called Guiding Children of Promise.
“When a mother goes to jail, her kids are lucky if grandma takes them in. They are the silent victims of crime,” Buquet said.
Laura Taylor knows a lot about that particular tragedy. She had four minor children in 1994 when she was sentenced to eight years in a federal prison for conspiracy to distribute drugs in California. Her husband was killed in the arrest. A friend of hers agreed to marry her civilly so her children could remain in their home as Taylor served an eight-year term. She was released in two and, although she took classes and learned the piano while incarcerated, she said it was a rough time because of the children she left behind.
“I became a ‘revert’ to the Catholic Church,” Taylor said. “I was hoping to get involved in my parish but wondered, ‘Are they going to accept me?’ Today, I’m the president of the women’s club at St. Mary’s downtown.”
She attended the prison ministry workshop because, she said, she learned about prison time the hard way and because, “We are obligated to always give back.”
When the discussion covered Death Row ministry, Deacon Hyland suggested that the ministers accept the convicts as they are and not become involved in their cases if they claim innocence.
“You’re not there to give them the idea that God is going to set them free. Help them work through the process and discuss death with them. Speak about salvation, if they’re open to it,” he said.
Debbie Oliver of the host parish agreed.
“The reason I’m here is that the soul is more important than life,” Oliver said.
Deacon James Williams said a large group at St. Anthony of Padua was interested in the ministry and they would use the workshop to “spearhead our direction for us.” His pastor, Franciscan Father Patrick Tuttle, said the group is attempting to coordinate ministerial functions with the diocese.
“We want to be good partners, so that we can continue to grow the unity of the Christian church,” Father Tuttle said.
At Our Lady of the Rosary Church, where a sizable prison ministry is already active at Perry Correctional Institution in Pelzer, attendance at the workshop was all but mandatory, according to Deacon Ray Perham.
Deacon Hyland concluded the day by saying that the function of the workshops is simple. “We are trying to put the word out there that this is all part of our parish ministries,” he said.
Each participant in the workshop was given a certificate, a training manual and a medal of the ministry’s logo of a red cross behind black bars on a gold background.
Prison ministry workshops are scheduled for the Midlands Deanery on Aug. 8 and the Coastal Deanery on Aug. 29.
For more information on upcoming training workshops, forms for volunteering, or the Guiding Children of Promise program, visit www.supportcatholiccharities.org and click the “Prison Ministry” icon.