· The Stocktake Report is an opportunity to make further progress in resolving the outstanding issues – and to cooperate in addressing the concerns of prisoners, families and staff – that have led to tension in recent years
· Prisons cannot be seen by society as mere “dumping grounds” for those who deserve no better. Ideally our prisons should be places of redemption, renewal, and hope
· The legacy of crime, especially any type of sexual or violent crime, can have long-lasting consequences for the person concerned and for their families
Last year it emerged that at some of his morning Masses at the Vatican, Pope Francis was using Communion hosts made by a thirty-eight year old woman prisoner at the San Martin Penitentiary outside Buenos Aires. Pope Francis seems to have a special place in his heart for prisoners. During his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires he regularly visited the prisons to say Mass. We all remember those touching scenes from his first Holy Thursday when he visited a juvenile detention centre in Rome and bent down to wash the feet of the young offenders of all faiths and none. Pope Francis reminds us not to forget about prisoners and to pray that the Lord will help them overcome this difficult period in their lives.
“No cell is so isolated that it can keep the Lord out,” Pope Francis says.
Today marks the beginning of Prisons Week and I invite you to think in a special way about those who are in our own prisons here in Ireland. A woman said to me over the summer: “Archbishop Eamon, why do you not pray more often at Mass for prisoners?” It is true. As followers of Jesus who came to bring Good News to the poor and to proclaim liberty to captives, we could all do more to think about those who must live their lives without the freedom that we all enjoy. I know that prison is society’s way of punishing people for serious wrong doing, and we ought never to forget the many victims of crime who have suffered, or give the impression that we excuse these crimes. Still, caring for our prisoners – and about the conditions in which they are being held – is a Christ-like thing to do.
Not long ago, and just before taking up my responsibilities as Archbishop, I visited Maghaberry prison, just twenty-five miles from where we are in Armagh. When I visit a prison I always leave with a sense of sadness for those who must spend time there, and with regret at the waste of talent and opportunity that prisons represent. In some ways our prisons reflect back to us the problems of society and the shadow side of life which we might prefer to keep out of sight and out of mind. The problems experienced in society are often experienced even more intensely in prisons, like bullying, intimidation, addiction, isolation and hopelessness. Sometimes we forget that prisoners themselves are women and men with families and children who care about them and who miss them.
It is vital that our prisons are sufficiently well resourced in terms of expertise and services to respond to the many needs that are there. Prisons cannot be seen by society as mere “dumping grounds” for those who deserve no better. Ideally our prisons should be places of redemption, renewal, and hope, where lives can be changed and turned around for the better.
Here in Northern Ireland there are aspects of our prison system which still reflect the legacy of our troubled and divided past. Just this week the Stocktake Report into the prison regime in Maghaberry was published, and I believe it offers space and hope for an end to the long running tensions within the prison. I encourage all those involved to see the Stocktake Report and its recommendations as an opportunity to make further progress in resolving the outstanding issues – and to cooperate in addressing the concerns of prisoners, families and staff – that have led to tension in recent years.
As a society we owe a debt of gratitude to those who work in prisons in all sorts of different roles. An essential aspect of their work is to ensure that the dignity of prisoners is respected at all times. In turn, they must be able to do their work safely and without threat to themselves and their families.
During my recent visit I witnessed at first hand the vital work of the prison chaplains, who are dedicated to providing for the spiritual, pastoral and practical needs of prisoners, their families and the staff. Please give thanks to God and pray this week for our prison chaplains. Our chaplains work every day to bring the warmth of hope to all those associated with prison life.
We all need encouragement and hope from time to time and this is especially true for our prisoners and their families who can be feeling fine one day, but very down the next. Saint Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: “So speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Of course we should not forget this week those who have been the victims of crime in our society. The legacy of crime, especially any type of sexual or violent crime, can have long-lasting consequences for the person concerned and for their families. Survivors of such dreadful crimes need reasons for hope. They too need help, expertise and resources to help them to make the journey to hope. I invite you to pray with me The Prisons Week Prayer:
Lord, you offer freedom to all people.
We pray for those in prison.
Break the bonds of fear and isolation that exist.
Support with your love prisoners and their families and friends, prison staff and all who care.
Heal those who have been wounded by the actions of others, especially the victims of crime.
Help us to forgive one another, to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly together with Christ in his strength and in his Spirit, now and every day.
· Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. This homily was preached at 11:00am Mass this morning in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh.
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