'When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them: 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.' (Matthew 25: 39,40)
In St Francis' day the lepers were feared as dangerous, and so driven away from all social contact. Today we put offenders who harm society in prison. They are dubbed: the sad, the mad, and the bad; and there is some truth in the description.
For fourteen years it has been my good fortune to work with these men. We are in a good and enlightened jail. Its brief is to keep the men safe, secure, in decent conditions and working towards resettlement in the community.
My task is to give them pastoral and religious care. A very good Mass celebrated with Catholics each Saturday morning forms the heart of our working together. The pastoral care goes equally to all prisoners, of many religions or none. Family contact is vitally important. We chaplains do a lot to mend what is broken, to fan the embers of communi-cation, to set up opportunities to meet in a less harsh setting than the visits in the Hall.
Most of my time is spent sitting on prisoners' beds, listening to their stories. Often the task involves mute company: for instance, with the suicidal, for the pressures are enormous even in an enlightened regime. A frequent task is to break the news of the death of a relative. Then to keep vigil as he endures the long days and nights, most often deprived even of attending the funeral.
No words are adequate. Francis could not heal the lepers, or make society react in a more Christian fashion. He kept company with them. I have found this to be the task of a chaplain or prison visitor. They need the presence of someone who does not judge, but cares; someone who keeps coming back when they behave badly; someone who shows by his company that he detects the good in them, when they have lost all sense of their own worth. They tell me I am good at it. I don't know. I had no real training. I simply do what comes naturally for a Franciscan, but that seems to work.
There are some success stories, though we rarely see the outcome. The aim is to help offenders to reflect constructively on their behaviour, on themselves and others.
Many dread release as the day approaches. The world they knew is long defunct. How will they cope with the pace of life, struggle to compete for a job, pick up the threads of living close to a partner and family after years of separation?
I am often asked if it is depressing, dangerous, frustrating? I can only report that, of the many jobs I have been fortunate to receive as a Friar, it is by far the most satisfying and rewarding. I heartily recommend it!
Permission was granted by prison staff and inmates for the images.