It is too very easy to think of prisoners as vilest bunch of human beings paying the price of their crimes. And as such prisoners are loathsome to many people who see them as disgusted persons. But the truth is likely that in some cases, the worst criminals are those yet to be caught. Remember the joke about the 11th Commandant – “thou shall not be caught.” So if they are yet to be caught, they are angels.
When Jesus had the opportunity to define his mission, he made it abundantly clear that he came for the sick, the forsaken, the sinner, and even the prisoner (Matthew 9: 9-13; Mark 2: 13-17; Luke 5: 27-32). He, therefore, identified with the prisoner whom some people may forsake, and he invites us to identify with them as well. Of course, the Catholic Church has hearkened to this invitation to visit prisoners.
While talking about the “essential elements of Christian and ecclesial charity”, Pope Benedict XVI listed in his Encyclical Letter “the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations” of people as the first amongst the things people would need to respond to in providing for others. These “immediate needs and specific situations” include “feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc.” (Deus Caritas est, n. 31).
Highlighting the need that can never be overemphasized about the necessity of caring for others, the Pope Emeritus pointed out that “The Church’s charitable organizations, beginning with those of Caritas (at diocesan, national and international levels), ought to do everything in their power to provide the resources and above all the personnel needed for this work” (Deus Caritas Est, n. 31).
In the pastoral provisions of the Church, the Caritas is the arm by which the Church as a unit responds to the needs of others including those in prisons. However, the common response does not override our individual ones. Of course, our foundation as Church is laid upon the expression of charity, the provision of the Sacraments, and the preaching of the Word of God. They are the three most essential elements that make us Church and Christ-like. Provisions of these three essential elements are for all – including prisoners (Deus Caritas Est, n. 22). Our Popes have all kept prison apostolates. For instance, Pope Emeritus visited the prisoners in Rebibbia, Rome in 2011. Pope Francis while in USA visited prisoners in Philadelphia on 27th September 2015. At that pastoral visit, Pope Francis told the inmates that he was visiting them as a pastor, but mostly as their brother.
There, he reminded us that Jesus “teaches us to see the world through his eyes – eyes which are not scandalized by the dust picked up along the way, but want to cleanse, heal and restore. He asks us to create new opportunities: for inmates, for their families, for correctional authorities, and for society as a whole.”
Bishop Okobo while in office visited the prisoners at the Nsukka prisons as one of his pastoral activities. The prison apostolate is a priority one for Bishop Onah. Within the first few months in office as the Catholic Bishop of Nsukka, he visited the Nsukka prisons. At that visit, Bishop Onah, following the example of Christ, identified with the prison inmates using a Pauline analogy of being a prisoner for Christ.
“Bishop Onah went on to encourage them saying that the only prison people suffer is the prison of the mind and heart, not willing to accept the truth, lack of love and forgiving spirit. He emphasized that once people’s minds and hearts are open for God’s love, truth and mercy, they free themselves from such prisons.” He encouraged those who were unjustly imprisoned.
He urged those justly convicted for true conversion (Shepherd Communications, Vol. 2. No. 1, 2014). Conversion is one of principal reasons for prison apostolate. Since, all our fathers in faith have given us good examples to emulate, we too should visit prisoners.