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‘I was in prison and you visited me’

By Bishop Terry R. LaValley

Dec. 16, 2015

The Holy Father continues to challenge each of us to reach out to those who live on the margins, the periphery of life.  Our ministry to the imprisoned is an example of the Church as a field hospital - serving the most needy and most wounded where they are.

Today, there are approximately 11,000 incarcerated persons in the Diocese of Ogdensburg, over 2,600 are Catholic.  Among the eight dioceses in New York State, only the Archdiocese of New York has more incarcerated persons.

One of the important responsibilities I have as bishop is to make pastoral visits to all of our correctional facilities.  At our listening sessions that were held as part of our Envisioning Process, I was reminded of our Church’s need not to neglect or avoid segments of our society that often feel left out by the Church. 

A frequent comment that I hear from the incarcerated is their plea that we not forget them.  These pastoral visits provide me with the opportunity to meet men whose life decisions have harmed others, as well as themselves. 

The many individuals whose lives were impacted by such harmful decisions need healing and reason to hope.  As we celebrate this Jubilee of Mercy, it is good to recall that ministry to prisoners is one of the seven corporal works of mercy grounded in the Gospel mandate of charity. 

We recall that as He was preaching about the Last Judgment, Jesus identified Himself with those who were imprisoned:  “I was in prison and you visited me” (Mt.25:36).

We remember, too, how, on that Good Friday, Jesus ministered and brought the hope of eternal life to the repentant criminal hanging on a cross next to Him.

The Diocese of Ogdensburg is blessed with dedicated priests and deacons who minister as chaplains in our prisons.  They provide worship services, the sacraments, spiritual guidance and pastoral counseling that can help prevent these institutions from becoming warehouses of lost hope.

If behavioral and emotional healing is to occur, spiritual healing must be a catalyst. Their presence offers the prisoners a path of healing for their souls, making peace with themselves and God. 

They, also, provide support to the Corrections Officers, the staff and their families. Our chaplains help the inmates who will be released to reintegrate back into their community and connect with their parish.
This Jubilee Year of Mercy is an opportune time for each of us to consider our personal attitudes toward the imprisoned.

Do we feel that convicts are outside the scope of the mercy of Jesus?  Some people would rob the incarcerated of every human dignity in prison.

“For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matt.7:1; cf. Lk.6:38).

Though surrounded by concrete walls and steel bars, the Church must help them to see light amid the darkness. 

Through Christ, we all need help and healing to overcome inclinations to evil. 

With the promise of Divine Mercy, hope is cultivated and darkness can be lifted for all of us.
(Click here for more reflections on prison ministry in the diocese)

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