Visiting the Imprisoned is a Corporal Work of Mercy

‘For I was hungry and you gave me food ... in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)

Fr. Harold Paulsen
Fr. Harold Paulsen (photo: Photo provided)

The United States, per capita, has the world’s largest prison population.  About 2.3 million people are housed in various detention facilities, with another 5 million on probation or parole.  Americans make up around 5 percent of the world’s population, yet house nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

The Catholic Church has always acknowledged the appropriateness of punishing individuals justly convicted of crimes by the State.  In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, for example, Pope John Paul II states that the primary purpose of punishment of criminals is “to redress the disorder caused by the offense.” (56)

Yet punishment should also be coupled with humane treatment and compassion and charity toward those imprisoned.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists visiting the imprisoned as a corporal (bodily) work of mercy (2447), echoing the words of Christ as He foretells His praise of the just on the Last Day: “I was … in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:36).

Without discounting the least the suffering offenders have caused their victims or the appropriateness of their punishment, committed Catholics have been moved by the suffering of the incarcerated, and reached out to help them.  Pope Francis, for example, has repeatedly highlighted detention ministry throughout his pontificate.


Prisons a bustle of religious activity

According to a 2012 Pew Forum Survey of U.S. prison chaplains, prisons are a “bustle of religious activity.”  Seventy-four percent say attempts by inmates to convert or proselytize other inmates are very or somewhat common.  The inmate evangelist/proselytizers are most often Protestant, but an increasing number are Muslim, say the chaplains.

While most thought the number of Catholics in prison was stable, only 13 percent of the chaplains identified themselves as Catholic and the most commonly mentioned Christian group with too few volunteers was Catholics.

I spoke with a priest, deacon and layman who each worked for a long time as a volunteer with detention ministry about their experience. 

Deacon Peter Brause, who was previously with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, volunteered at the California Institution for Men in Chino, California.  He assisted with Mass and prepared inmates to receive the sacraments.

He liked working with the inmates and was impressed by their efforts to return to the Faith they may have lost many years before.  He said, “The men I work with have made mistakes, but regret them and are trying to find their way back to God … in fact, I have found Jesus to be more present in the Chino facility than in my own parish.”

Many face criticisms from fellow inmates, Brause said, who harbor “an anti-Catholic and anti-Christian bias.”  He continued, “It says something about them that they show up for Mass.”

Brause recruited a friend, layman Rob Auten, to lead a catechism class with the inmates.  Auten noted that his students had many questions about the Catholic Faith, especially in regard to Protestant critics who challenge Catholic teaching.  Protestant volunteers are more numerous than Catholics, he observed, and some attack Catholicism.  Auten is able to help the inmates with the knowledge they need to respond to such critics.

Like Brause, Auten has found prison ministry rewarding.  He said, “I love teaching the Faith, and the men seem to really appreciate it.”

Auten admitted that there are some days he’d rather not go to the prison, but once he’s gone, he’s always glad he did.  He said, “It’s very rewarding.  The men are always so glad to see us.  They appreciate what we do.”


“Common sense” rules

Volunteering in a prison is not like volunteering at one’s parish, they noted.  Prisons have a variety of “common sense” rules volunteers must follow.  Socializing and undue familiarity, such as hugging, is prohibited.  When inmates go on probation, volunteers are not allowed to contact them.

Cell phones are prohibited.  Only a small amount of wine is consecrated at Mass, and inmates are not allowed to drink from the chalice. 

And, most importantly, volunteers must always follow the directions of the prison staff and be prepared for interruptions in their ministry.  On his first-ever visit to the prison, for example, Brause recalled that as he was preparing to enter the facility, an alarm went off due to an inmate fight inside the facility.  Brause had to wait an hour until the alarm was over and he could begin his ministry.

Fr. Harold Paulsen (1931-2016), who was a priest of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas, worked in prison ministry for more than 20 years.  He lamented that those in elected office who oversee prisons “run for office on security.”  He continued, “’Security’ is the magic word; keep those who commit crime locked up so they don’t bother anyone.  The problem is, when inmates do get out, they’re worse people than when they went in.” 

In his retirement, Fr. Paulsen visited five Texas prisons.  He was the author of multiple books, including When I Was in Prison – Hope for the Hopeless, which offers help to the imprisoned and shares with the outside world what prison life is like.  The purpose of his ministry, he said, “is to get inmates to be better men than when they went in.  I tell them the best thing they can do for their families is to become a better person, which they can do with Christ.”

Their encounter with Christ at his weekly Masses is essential, he found.  He said, “It’s so important.  I’ve had inmates tell me they live from Mass to Mass.”

Prison life can be dangerous, lonely and humiliating.  Additionally, one is surrounded by bad influences, making rehabilitation difficult.  Violence, too, is commonplace: “Inmates have to fight, whether or not they win.  It’s the rule of life.  They have to fight, or it will be open season on them.”

He recalled a conversation with a 20-year inmate.  The man told him, “I’ve had a lot of fights, and a perfect record.  I’ve never won one.”

Father lived in the “Bible Belt,” where Catholics make up 3 percent of the population, and anti-Catholicism is common.  Some of the greatest resistance to his work, he noted, was from some of the Protestant chaplains who work at the prisons.  He didn’t mind fighting for the Faith, though: “I like it. It’s a challenge.”

He pleaded with the public for patience and understanding of the prison population, invited their prayers and support, and reminded them that all inmates are not “bad apples.”  He concluded, “There are good people in prison who want a good life.  They don’t want to return to crime.”

Upon Fr. Paulsen’s death in 2016, Bishop of Tyler Joseph Strickland said, “Father Paulsen had a special love for the poor, the hurting and the incarcerated members of the Body of Christ and dedicated his life, especially his later years, to helping those in special need of the Church’s pastoral care. He was truly a missionary of mercy who brought the love of Christ to those in most need of compassion and forgiveness.”