The role of the prison chaplain goes far beyond just looking after the religious and spiritual needs of prisoners, Dr Ruth Webber told delegates gathered for the inaugural Catholic Prison Chaplains National Gathering this weekend.
Dr Webber is a Professor (Honorary) at the Australian Catholic University. In her keynote address on Thursday 24 September, she said, ‘Prison chaplains provide much-needed emotional, practical and social support to prisoners’.
Over 40 participants gathered at Mary MacKillop Place, North Sydney from 24-26 September to hear Dr Webber speak about her recent visits to prisons in Wisconsin, United States and her research paper published in October 2014 by the Catholic Social Services Victoria, ‘I was in Prison, A Window into Prison Ministry’.
The purpose of the study was to provide information about the Ministry and to increase awareness within and beyond the Catholic community about the work undertaken by prison chaplains and volunteers.
Dr Webber also highlighted the role of restorative justice practices that involve the offender, the victim, the family and community. ‘The offender is brought to understand how his or her actions have caused harm to people and a process of reconciliation begins.’
The theme of the Gathering was ‘Prison Ministry – The Face of Mercy’, which continued the conversation following the publication in 2011 of the Australian Catholic Bishops Social Justice Statement, ‘Building Bridges Not Walls’.
Conference organiser Fr Peter Carroll MSC posed the question to delegates, ‘Where do you see the light of mercy shining in your role as prison chaplains?’ This invitation was prompted by Pope Francis’ announcement that there will be a ‘Jubilee for Prisoners’ during the Year of Mercy to be celebrated on 6 November 2016.
The Gathering was supported by the Australian Catholic Prisoners Pastoral Care Council (ACPPCC), a council of the Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life (BCPL) and Chaired by Bishop Terry Brady.
Highlighting the role of the prison chaplain, Bishop Brady said, ‘they provide an amazing ministry’. He explained, ‘Chaplains provide prisoners with the opportunity to reflect on the reasons for their offence and to re-establish connections to their faith’.
Some of the recommendations from this Gathering will be considered by the BCPL next month.