His name is St. Dismas, but he is better known as the Good Thief. His cry of repentance while hanging next to Jesus at Calvary guaranteed him eternity in paradise. This patron saint of prisoners and reformed thieves gives hope to inmates across America through St. Dismas Holy Name Society Prison Ministry.
“The prisoners are really touched by St. Dismas,” says ministry founder Harry “Bud” Cope. “They identify with him.”
Cope has been leading Catholic retreats for inmates — from hardened convicts in maximum-security facilities to young “prodigals” in juvenile detention centers — for more than 30 years.
The 80-year-old from Greensburg, Pa., told the Register he was first inspired to take action after making a Cursillo retreat in 1970. After asking God how he could live out his newfound Christian fervor, Cope felt the Lord leading him to answer the invitation of a neighbor who was working at a nearby prison.
Cope, a former wholesale grocer, became a volunteer at the State Correctional Institute in Greensburg in 1974. At that time, he was allowed to take inmates outside the prison walls for weekend retreats. That lasted for about five years before the state of Pennsylvania rescinded the privilege.
While leading a prison retreat, Cope himself experienced a deep conversion: God showed him his own sinfulness and the Lord’s power. “It was there,” Cope recalls, “that I knew God was calling me.”
Retreats inside prisons became his “life’s calling.”
In 2008, Cope and his prison-ministry group conducted 11 retreats at 11 different prisons across the nation. Prisoners sign up for a four-day retreat that runs Thursday through Sunday. Local volunteers help Cope and his co-leaders run the retreats. Called metanoia retreats (the word is Greek for change of heart), these weekends are packed with inspirational talks, small-group sharing, prayer, Mass and confession.
In Baton Rouge, La., Jules Tolivar has been impressed with the St. Dismas Prison Ministry. Since the summer of 2008, he has served as the Catholic chaplain at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Institute, a maximum-security prison housing more than 2,000 men. What has excited Tolivar, a layman, is the Catholic core of these weekends.
According to Tolivar, the Catholic teaching and spirituality make a big difference for the more than 100 men who attend a metanoia weekend. Often, he says, when a Christian program is offered in the prisons and attended by both Protestants and Catholics, it ends with endless arguments and bickering on doctrine and Church teaching. When that happens, not much spiritual work can get done.
“We’re bringing the teachings of the Church to these guys,” says Tolivar, “and they accept it. These metanoia retreats are a Catholic retreat for Catholics.”
Father Tom Hayes in the Diocese of Oakland, Calif., seconds the importance of Catholic retreats for Catholic inmates. He serves as the spiritual director for the national office of the Holy Name Society, under whose auspices the St. Dismas Prison Ministry operates.
“When you offer an authentic presentation of the Gospel, there is a positive result,” says Father Hayes, who will celebrate his 50th year as a Dominican this year.
He notes that, frequently, in prison ministry the depth of Catholic spirituality and teaching depends on the dedication of the prison chaplain. In many cases, he says, the chaplain in charge can be someone who misunderstands or misrepresents the Catholic Church.
When a St. Dismas retreat is offered, he adds, Catholic prisoners know what they are getting.
“This is a work that is bringing the love of Jesus to the people,” says Father Hayes. “The weekends are energetic and have an evangelizing effect on everyone involved.”
Cope explains that a successful metanoia weekend is one during which hearts really do change. He calls the process “self-evangelization.”
“When these men come on these retreats, they are more often than not at the bottom of the pit in terms of their lives,” he says. “It’s there that they start to turn to God.”
The St. Dismas website confirms the power of these spiritual exercises. Numerous testimonies from prisoners attest to the retreats’ life-changing power.
“From the moment the metanoia (retreat) started and especially after the first weekend, something dramatic had taken place in my heart,” writes Kevin, a 33-year-old prisoner who attended a metanoia retreat several years ago at the Lawtey State Corrections Institute in Lawtey, Fla. “It seemed my burdens and negativity had greatly subsided. My belief and faith in the Catholic way of life has been fully restored.”
Sometimes prison employees are affected as much as inmates. Cope says that, regardless of the workers’ personal response, nearly all welcome the positive changes in the prison environment that the retreats invariably bring.
Cope is adamant that a good retreat must go beyond the time he and his team are there. St. Dismas Holy Name Society outreach groups are often established to assist the retreatants with their ongoing spiritual growth.
“After the retreat, we have a very good follow-up and ongoing spiritual-growth program,” Cope says. “We find that you can’t set their hearts on fire and then just say, ‘See you next year.’”
At Hunt Correctional, Tolivar is pleased to report that the Catholic faith is alive and growing. With a daily schedule of visiting inmates, conducting Communion services and running a Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program, Tolivar notes that these Catholic retreats only help put these men more on fire for the Lord.
“Months after the retreats at our faith-sharing group on Thursdays, these guys are still sharing what happened to them on their retreats,” says Tolivar.
With close to four decades of bringing the word of God to inmates near and far, Cope has no plans of slowing down. He is always on the search for a new prison where Christ’s love and mercy can become a reality, just as it did for St. Dismas on that Friday at Calvary.
Eddie O’Neill writes from
Green Bay, Wisconsin.
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