Prisons can become a place of grace, Father Droze tells volunteers

Prisons can become a place of grace, Father Droze tells volunteers

Prisons can become a place of grace, Father Droze tells volunteersCOLUMBIA—Catholics who volunteer in prison ministry are, in essence, bringing Christ into the often dark and difficult world of a correctional institution.

That was the core message at a special prison ministry retreat held March 6 at Our Lady of the Hills Church in Columbia. Fifty-five volunteers from around the state spent a day talking about their experiences and discussing the impact their work has on the lives of those they serve.

Deacon James P. Hyland, diocesan coordinator of prison ministry, said he hopes it will become an annual event.

“You’ll have people from the same parish going in to area institutions on different days, and often they don’t know about each other,” he said “This gives them a sense that we’re all in this together, a sense of support.”

The retreat started with a prayer service and Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone. His homily focused on the day’s Gospel reading, about the parable of the Prodigal Son. He said those who choose prison ministry are similar to the father in the parable, who welcomes his son home even after he squanders his inheritance.

“Our ministry deals with a  lot of people who run off, who get themselves in serious trouble,” he said. “Are we as willing to open our arms for those who have hurt us personally or societally, have turned from God? We know God waits for their return, and our loving Father tells us to do the same.”

Prisons can become a place of grace, Father Droze tells volunteersFather D. Anthony Droze, pastor of Our Lady of the Hills, was one of the keynote speakers. Father Droze has worked in prison ministry for more than 20 years, and often deals with some of the most difficult offenders at a Columbia unit run by the state Department of Mental Health. He also oversees a flourishing program in his parish.

Father Droze said prison ministry can be accomplished in many ways, but the Catholic Church offers some rich perspectives and traditions that can be especially beneficial to inmates.

“I often wonder if volunteers realize the grace of what they’re doing, the grace of the ministry,” he said.

He asked one inmate what he would like to tell the parish volunteers who visit him, and the man said, “Tell them they’ll never known how important their visits are.”

Father Droze said volunteers also present a powerful witness to the guards and staff who work at the institutions. He said the work should focus on the importance of Scripture and the power of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.

“Prison ministry is a humanizing movement in a thoroughly dehumanizing environment,” he said.

Deacon Hyland said Catholics involved in prison ministry must be well versed in all aspects of their faith, because often they are confronted by hostile viewpoints within the prison system.

Their duty, he said, is to help Catholic inmates prepare to receive the sacraments, and to offer clear and concise information about the faith to those who are interested or those who might challenge them.

“Inmates deserve the truth,” he said.

Father Droze, parishioner Al Smith, and Sister Christina Murphy, pastoral associate, all described profound experiences they had while working in prisons.

“The prison is a place of great grace,” Father Droze said. “Everything that is wrong in society is concentrated in those places. So much in daily life discourages us and robs us of our peace, but the struggles we have are nothing compared with what we see every day in the lives of the people we have the privilege to serve.”