Bishop Gary Gordon
VANCOUVER – Prison ministry efforts are uniting nation-wide to improve the ways they reach out to inmates, victims, and communities affected by crime.
"We're trying to help our Catholic faithful be more engaged in service, outreach, reconciliation, and healing," said Bishop Gary Gordon of Whitehorse.
The bishop liaison to prison ministry for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is heading a new initiative called Catholic Connections in Restorative Justice, a network for chaplains and volunteers.
"We realize people who are doing this ministry of outreach can feel isolated," Gordon said in an interview. "Creating a communion of people gives them a great affirmation, strength, and sharing of resources and ideas."
Outreach to prisoners and their families is growing across the country. Gordon guessed every Canadian provincial and federal jail has a Catholic presence.
"There's been a lot of engagement with our laity, and it's growing. That's a really big blessing," he noted, adding this helps the smaller number of available priests.
The initiative, which had been in the works for about 18 months, was launched in November and has made 120 connections so far, said coordinator Deacon Mike Walsh.
"There is a growing need to minister to the families of offenders as well as the victims and their families. This is what we mean when we say 'people touched by crime,'" Walsh explained.
The first phase of the initiative involves finding out how many chaplains and volunteers are out there and how they are reaching prisons in Canada, he said.
An average of 163,000 people over the age of 18 were in the correctional system each day in 2011, according to Statistics Canada. That number includes offenders in federal or provincial jails and those under supervision in the community.
Maureen Donegan, coordinator of Catholic Charities Justice Services in Vancouver, said the archdiocese's prison ministry is active in all eight federal prisons within its boundaries.
"Lives are changed by our presence," she explained. "The biggest effect is the fact they are treated with dignity and respect as people of God."
About 150 volunteers lead a broad variety of programs, including Bible studies, Taize prayer and Alpha courses inside local jails, in addition to weekly Mass and Liturgy of the Word.
They also create community support groups of three to five volunteers for ex-prisoners.
"We don't go in to try to change them or make them Catholics," said Donegan, who started working in this ministry 10 years ago, "but it often happens. We've had several Baptisms and Confirmations in the past couple of years."
Gordon said the understanding that "the Lord wants people to be well" drives his passion for prison outreach.
"If one person who's committed a crime meets a good chaplain or lay person and their life is changed, I've just made 10 square blocks of a city safer."
More information on Catholic Connections in Restorative Justice is available at www.ccinrj.ca.