Father McGeough agreed, saying that, “I’ve been a priest for 40 years, and I’ve never been thanked so much for just showing up. You will get a lot of gratitude in this ministry.”
AT an informational meeting in the Diocese of Trenton (New Jersey, USA) pastoral center, Vincentian Father Martin McGeough, diocesan coordinator of Jail and Prison Ministry, led an open forum style meeting accompanied by 25 participants.
Father McGeough expressed his compassion for the imprisoned, and explained why it’s the duty of Christians to visit them. “Pope Francis tells us to go to the marginalized and the abandoned,” he shared, pointing out that the incarcerated men and women have been marginalized by society and abandoned by their loved ones. “They’ll admit that they did it to themselves.”
“As Pope Francis has told us, we don’t go to bring Christ. We go to see him and to serve him,” Father McGeough continued. “In prison we have to look beyond what they did and see the face of Christ. That is the challenge of prison ministry.”
Msgr. Casimir Ladzinski, a retired priest of the Diocese who attended the meeting, said “Whoever is in prison is still a child of God. Some would say ‘By the grace of God, I’m not in prison.’ Many of these people just need a new start on life … so we have to walk with them on the journey. This ministry is a very important one in our Diocese.”
Father McGeough noted how he has been leading volunteers in this ministry for six years, and has worked with priests, religious sisters, and lay people from many different backgrounds to bring the Gospel to inmates in the Diocese and across the state.
Volunteers are sent in groups of at least two, and they typically lead Bible studies, Catholic studies, Communion services or programs from a Catholic outreach for prisoners called Dismas Ministry, named after the Good Thief crucified with Jesus.
Father McGeough encourages volunteers to tailor their prison ministry offering to what they feel comfortable with in their faith. He suggested becoming part of a ministry that will have a positive effect on the inmates, and hopefully change their lives and help them stay out of jail and prison.
“You decide what your ministry will be. You tell me what jail you want to go to,” he told the potential volunteers. He then cautioned that timing of visits might not be as flexible due to the busy schedule inmates have during the day. Most ministry programs have to take place in the evening, he said.
Father McGeough explained a variety of other parameters volunteers should know when visiting jails or prisons. For instance, khakis, orange clothing, women’s short sleeve or sleeveless shirts, hoodies, scarfs, pocketbooks and cell phones are not allowed inside.
Volunteers are given approximately 60 to 90 minutes to present their program, and can expect to be scheduled to visit a jail or prison twice per month.
Father McGeough advised the potential volunteers to limit what they say about themselves during their time with inmates for their own safety, but also encouraged them to share their faith in whatever way they are comfortable.
The jail and prison ministry visits 14 jails and prisons in the Diocese, including seven county jails, six state prisons, and one federal prison in Fort Dix—the largest federal prison in the country.
The application process to become a volunteer is quite strict, but once completed the volunteers receive a universal badge which allows them to visit any of those prisons.
“You have to be honest on your application,” Father McGeough emphasized while mentioning how jail and prison security guards take their job very seriously. “If you lie, they will find out.”
Among the 25 attendants of the meeting were a few veteran volunteers. While they admitted that prison ministry is a challenge, they also explained why it is definitely worth it. They shared many of their stories and motivations.
Gene Douglass of St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish, Hamilton, who has been volunteering in prison ministry for two years, said she got involved in prison ministry because she noticed the graces she had received in her own life, and felt she had to give back. “It’s an extremely rewarding experience,” she said of the ministry.
Clare Smith of St. Paul Parish, Princeton, spoke of how she had recently read an article in the Trenton Times that talked about New Jersey’s prison system and the positive effects of prison ministries. Shortly thereafter, she saw a blurb in her parish bulletin about the information meeting and noted that “It was kind of perfect timing.”
Smith and almost two dozen other potential volunteers wound up learning how fulfilling this ministry can be.
“You’re going to get so much more than you give,” said Joe Raborg of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel, who has been volunteering at the Garden State Correctional Facility for five years. “You can never out-give God.”