“and you came to see me”.
Prison Pastoral Care in Spain
Óscar Romano Yuste cmf
Chaplain of the Villena prison
On its synodal journey, the Penitentiary Pastoral of Spain wanted to listen to those deprived of their freedom. I take their words.
The prison of Villena is in the middle of nowhere. Is it also far from the Church and God and his Kingdom? There is a feeling of social marginalization, of “being apart” from society, which extends to the Church. Although very personal gestures can be valued as “counting for the Church”, the general feeling is that just as they are marginalized from society, they are also marginalized from the Church itself. The Church institution, or the Church in freedom, has a bad image in prison.
Prisoners are no strangers to all the comments that society itself generates. If we add to this the fact that they have no ecclesial, faith, or community life in freedom, the final opinion is negative. The media are also shaping the idea of the Church in society, and prisoners are no strangers to this. The image of the Church in prison is typified as: “politics”, “power”, “business”, “money”, “dark spots in its history”, “rich and poor”, “resistant to change”.
But there is a Samaritan Church. Those deprived of liberty identify with this Church that welcomes, accepts, and draws closer to Jesus. A Church that does not ask about the crime, a Church that does not ask about the creed, a Church that does not ask about the origin. A Church that treats everyone equally. Everyone has a place in prison ministry.
Admission to prison means coming face to face with loneliness. It means entering a world that is unknown, different, and full of prejudices and stereotypes. It is to look fear in the face, insecurity out of the corner of one’s eye, and uncertainty in the face. That is why a word from the chaplain, a look from the volunteer, is a door that opens to life, hope, and the future. A smile, a hug, a handshake is humanity. The prisoner’s values as very positive in prison are the Church that helps him, calls him by name, invites him to meetings, and the Eucharist.
Material aid in prison has been one of the significant commitments that the Church has made to the prisoners. Providing clothing packages to prisoners who do not receive visits or giving money in “peculiar” to prisoners who do not receive any income is commonplace in the Prison Ministry. In 2020, the Prison Ministry gave more than 220,000 euros in grants to poor inmates, thousands of packages to prisoners without family support, and took in almost 3,000 prisoners on furlough who had no family and were under guardianship. This reality of social aid is very well established in prison and highly valued by prisoners.
During a typical year (unaffected by the pandemic) 12% of the prisoners participate every week in Eucharistic celebrations. This percentage is not far from the usual practice at liberty. But these data force us to be sincere and to recognize that more than 90% of the prisoners who go to Mass in prison did not go before entering, and when they are released, they will hardly join a community of faith of life.
When a prisoner enters prison, in the solitude of his cell, and looking around him, he realizes he is alone. Everything falls apart: family, friends, “colleagues”. On the other hand, many prisoners have raised their spirits by seeking refuge in God, as some of the testimonies show. Some begin their reconciliation with God in prison and pray their own way.
The celebrations in prison are lively, human, and spontaneous. People sing, answer and participate as they feel. There are no masks, no double standards. There is no need to respond well or sing better to look good. The Mass in prison helps the inmates a lot; that balm gives peace, gives serenity, and calms consciences.
The majority feeling of the prisoners is that they are listened to, neither in society nor in the Church, and the saddest thing of all is that they take it for granted. They see it as “almost normal”. They are the bad guys, both for society and the Church. On the other hand, they have the consolation of being listened to by the Church in prison, by no one else.
WE ASK THE CHURCH. After all the contributions to the Synod’s reflection as a whole, the prisoners felt free and dared to propose and ask for concrete things on particular and concrete issues. From their point of view, these requests ranged from the prisoners’ needs to suggestions for better functioning of the Church. Apart from the concrete requests, we value as very positive the fact that they have felt free to express their opinions.
WE ASK SOCIETY. Although the requests have been more numerous to the Church, perhaps because it was a reflection promoted by the Church itself, the truth is that the prisoners are most questioned by the very society in which they live and which, in many cases, has sent them to prison. Mainly because, even if he does not participate in the Church, his life can continue, but if he does not find a place in society or is not allowed to, his life becomes very complicated.
IS THERE A LACK OF PRISON SENSITIVITY ON THE PART OF THE CHURCH? Many volunteers feel that their work and awareness-raising are “preaching in the desert”. The truth is that the prison and the prisoners are not within our reach. We do not see them, we do not feel them, and therefore it is difficult for us to be sensitive to them unless it is a person close to us or our parish community, and then we get involved.
LACK OF LISTENING LEADS TO A LACK OF PARTICIPATION. Prison Pastoral is a marginal pastoral, not because of its recipients, who are prisoners and therefore marginalized from the outset, but because of the concept within the Church itself. Thus, faced with this situation, this ministry needs a capacity for communication and a great capacity for listening on the part of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
Óscar Romano Yuste cmf