Prison ministry trying to improve understanding of the faith

COLUMBIA—Visiting and ministering to people in prison is one of the corporal works of mercy, and the Diocese of Charleston’s Office of Social Ministry is working on the best way to respond to prisoners’ needs.
At two Prison Ministry Summit meetings held June 15 and July 25 in Columbia, deacons, clergy, women religious and lay people identified five challenges that need to be addressed:
• a lack of support and organization;
• the need to educate the prison system about the Catholic Church and what it offers;
• more coverage in juvenile detention centers;
• the development of sacramental norms;
• active involvement in the legislative process regarding the corrections system.
Caroline Weisberg, diocesan director of social ministry, said an organized approach is important.
“The problem has been that everybody is out there doing their own little thing, and we’re missing an opportunity that comes with working together,” Weisberg said. “A uniformity to prison ministry will help things improve.”
By identifying the challenges and addressing them, Weisberg said the diocese can more effectively promote Catholic identity.
At the July 25 meeting, the group discussed different challenges facing prison ministry in county jails versus state and federal prisons.
They agreed to study the challenges and develop necessary resources. Their findings will help create an advisory committee to coordinate efforts in South Carolina.
Father David R. Whitman, pastor of Our Lady of the Hills Church in Columbia, said one of the biggest concerns is a lack of support from prison administrators who don’t understand the Catholic Church.
In the past, he said, some clergy and volunteers have been denied access to jails or prisons while other denominations were allowed inside to lead worship services, Bible studies and other programs.
Educating prison leadership will make it easier for priests to gain access so they can celebrate Mass and offer the sacraments to inmates. Father Whitman said in the past, he was unable to say Mass at one prison because the warden allowed no alcohol to come inside, even the small amount of wine priests bring with them in their Mass kit.
“We need to let the prison system know more about us, and if there is any anti-Catholic bias there, they need to understand we are no longer willing to tolerate that,” Father Whitman said. “We have every right to go in and take care of our people.”
Prison ministry, which includes everything from Mass and the sacraments to Scripture study and prayer sessions, often is one of the only sources of comfort for Catholic inmates or those interested in the faith.
Some volunteers offer instruction for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.
Sister Christina Murphy, pastoral associate at Our Lady of the Hills, said she is often amazed at how something as simple as a chance to pray the rosary is a huge comfort for men and women behind bars.
One group of women she visited eventually formed their own small group to pray the rosary daily.
“Often just knowing someone cares about them and wants to speak with them is so important to these people,” she said.