MOSCOW — Despite its challenges, prison ministry in the Russian Federation is an important apostolate, changing lives and leading to conversions, a local Orthodox priest recounted to a Catholic charity.
“When we started our pastoral work in the prison in 1998, we only had a small room in the washhouse to pray in,” Father Igor Pokrovskij recently told Aid to the Church in Need.
“Six months later, a group of them already met separately for morning and evening prayers. When I came on Sunday to celebrate the Holy Liturgy, they had prepared themselves for confession and holy Communion during the week by fasting and praying.”
The Orthodox priest, who has been doing prison ministry in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth-largest city, for 16 years, described his efforts to establish a chapel at the local prison. In that time, he has baptized nearly 400 inmates.
“We bought some paint and coated the walls. Prisoners who were artistically talented then painted icons on the walls. In a separate chamber I heard confession. I soon noticed many changes in the souls.”
The prisoners are responsible for maintenance of the chapel, requiring dedication and dependability.
While some prisoners attend pastoral care simply for advantages in the prison, many of Father Pokrovskij’s penitents have converted, have been released and now have families and attend Liturgy regularly.
“We had someone here from a local authority who was serving time for corruption,” he told Aid to the Church in Need. “He had previously been hostile to the Church. If someone wanted to build a place of worship in his district, he would refuse permission.”
Yet now that he has been released, the man attends Liturgy regularly, the priest reported.
Father Pokrovskij also recounted one of his parishioners, Aleksandr, “who was converted in prison.”
“He married, moved to a village, now has three children, and every year at Christmas he brings me two geese.”
The biggest challenge in prison ministry, he said, is encouraging the imprisoned to confess their guilt so that they can convert.
“I say to them: ‘I am God’s witness, not a public prosecutor. I have the authority to absolve you of your sins in His name. But to enable me to do this, you must confess your guilt before God. This is essential if your soul is to be healed from sin.’”
Despite this, the brokenness in the lives of prisoners can make them the most receptive to grace and to God, Father Pokrovskij said.
“In fact, many people who have offended are well disposed towards the Church. In my experience, in their sin, they think a lot about the meaning of life. People whose lives run smoothly often think they don’t need God.”