I and a fellow novice recently became godparents. The simple but dignified baptism and confirmation liturgy took place during a community Mass attended by about 30 male worshippers. As the priest welcomed him into the Church and the congregation applauded, my godson, a Birmingham-born man in his thirties had an expression of excitement and serenity. Afterwards, he described the experience as being one of the most important events in his life.
It certainly had a powerful impact on me, reminding me of my own baptism when I was thirteen and my reception into the Roman Catholic Church a few years ago. The same sacraments yet very different contexts. I say this because the venue for the baptism a few weeks ago was the chapel at HMP Winson Green. The congregation consisted of inmates (plus two prison officers looking on at the back) and the priest officiating was the Catholic chaplain. My new godson is a prisoner who has discovered his Christian faith in jail. He is fond of animals and so he chose St. Francis of Assisi for his confirmation name.
I have been a Jesuit novice for just over two months now and one aspect of the novitiate I particularly enjoy is my “social apostolate” at the prison. Together with another novice, I go there on Thursdays and Sundays to assist with the work of the chaplaincy. Jesuit ministry begins with day one of the novitiate.
We help out with the liturgies, bible classes, and visits to individual prisoners. It’s challenging but rewarding work. As I’m let through the heavy gates of the prison’s reception area in the morning, I have no idea what a day might throw up, what I might see or what stories I might hear. The inmates can ask very searching questions (they have a lot of time to ponder existential issues) and they often hang on every word of your answer. I’ve been struck by the amount and intensity of faith among prisoners. It’s very humbling. It can also be quite harrowing at times, especially when visiting inmates who are on “suicide watch”.
I was a solicitor before joining the Jesuits and there’s a nice symmetry for me to be working in a prison now. I’m seeing things from the other side or you might say getting an insight into the sharper end of law. I’m certainly experiencing the human aspect more acutely, seeing prisoners as individuals rather than simply as “a case” or a statistic. In listening to the prisoners, I’m often struck by the difficult and chaotic nature of their upbringing and family lives. Of course every case is different but I can’t help detecting a general pattern, especially among the younger chaps, that a combined absence of male role models together with substance abuse leads them into a downward spiral of crime. It’s a great privilege to be able to hear accounts first hand.