Home Opinion Viewpoint: Visiting the imprisoned: How to serve the ‘least of these’

Viewpoint: Visiting the imprisoned: How to serve the ‘least of these’



With the proclamation of the Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has encouraged us to begin a personal examination of our relationship to God’s mercy.

The ball is in our court. How will we truly “find the joy rediscovering and rendering fruitful God’s mercy,” as Pope Francis has urged us?

We start by reviewing the corporal works of mercy. We recognize many of our actions on that list.

We contribute to the parish food drive and share with our local food bank. When the shadow of death passes over a household, we’re there with a casserole or a comforting word and a merciful presence at the burial. When illness strikes, we do what we can for the suffering.

But how many of us can say we have visited the imprisoned?

At this point on the list, we may hesitate. It’s perhaps the most neglected work of mercy, but in these times when the rate of incarceration of U.S. citizens is higher than in any other country, we can’t turn a blind eye.

Prisons are alien to some of us. Some have never known someone who has been incarcerated.

But according the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 1.5 million in the United States were in prison or jail in 2014 — the most recent data available. The advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative puts that figure at 2.4 million when you take into account people in places such as tribal and local jails, as well immigration and other detention centers.

Visiting the imprisoned can seem like a daunting task. Perhaps begin by placing yourself in solidarity with the imprisoned through imaginative prayer. How would you feel to be locked away, to be stripped of your reputation, your freedom, your loved ones?

Imagine the feelings of failure, the desire to turn your life around, to have another chance, to find a spiritual home, to once again be free to live and love. This doesn’t take into account the feelings of those wrongly convicted.

To imagine this anguish, imagine Jesus as he is unjustly jailed and condemned to die. Sit with St. Paul as he writes his letters from prison. Be with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a Birmingham jail. Pray for the journalists and human rights workers imprisoned and tortured by despotic regimes.

After praying, imagine how you can show mercy. Phone your local chancery or pastoral center and ask about their prison ministry. By your inquiries, you underscore the need to prioritize this sometimes neglected ministry.

Find out ways you can help the diocesan effort — by visiting or writing letters, by contributing Bibles, books or study materials. Perhaps you could arrange for someone from prison ministry to speak to a parish group.

Amnesty International provides letter-writing opportunities for those who wish to support a political prisoner in places as remote as Saudi Arabia or China. By their letter-writing campaigns, they have helped free innocent people.

Finally, be aware of what’s going on politically. Does your state offer ample mental health services to prisoners? Prisoners don’t have political clout. But those of us who wish to show mercy can speak up for them with our officials.

During this Year of Mercy, join Pope Francis, who washed the feet of prisoners, and joyfully stretch your efforts to serve “the least of these.”

Caldarola writes for Catholic News Service.