Archbishop Alexander Sample speaks at the Archdiocese of Portland prison ministry conference at Mount Angel Abbey April 13. He said Catholics undertake prison ministry “not simply as humanitarians doing good for our brothers and sisters in need; we are driven and motivated by faith.” (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
Archbishop Alexander Sample speaks at the Archdiocese of Portland prison ministry conference at Mount Angel Abbey April 13. He said Catholics undertake prison ministry “not simply as humanitarians doing good for our brothers and sisters in need; we are driven and motivated by faith.” (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
ST. BENEDICT — As a newly minted priest, the chrism oil practically still fresh on his hands, Archbishop Alexander Sample was assigned to prison ministry in Marquette, Michigan.

Each week he’d visit those incarcerated for crimes that included robbery, murder and rape — “the big ones,” the archbishop recalled during an April 13 gathering at Mount Angel Abbey.

His first time at the prison he felt incredibly nervous. “These guys are going to look at me and think, ‘Who is this guy?’” Archbishop Sample said. “So I decided to hit that straight on with them. I said, ‘I’m sure you all are looking at me like, what is this young, white, privileged priest — what does he have to say to us? How can I possibly relate to your life experience and what has led you to this place in life?’”

He told them that was all true. “All I have to offer you, all I have to bring you,” said the priest, “is the love and the mercy of God.”

The “ice melted, and we got off to a very good start,” Archbishop Sample told the nearly 100 participants of this year’s Archdiocese of Portland prison ministry conference.

Part of the archbishop’s message — that Catholics, in their own way, have the ability to bring the transformative love of God to incarcerated men and women — was echoed throughout the day of talks, prayers and discussions.

The faithful can also play a pivotal role in a radical transformation of the criminal justice system, argued Colette Peters, director of the Oregon Department of Corrections.

“Someone has to take the lead in Oregon” when it comes to reform, she said. “And I want that to be this group.”

Attendees were a diverse crowd that included ministry volunteers, clergy, family members of the incarcerated, and individuals involved in prison outreach and reentry work.

Benedictine Abbot Jeremy Driscoll began the conference with a prayer and a challenge. Prison ministry, he said, “will be done with greater effectiveness the more you can discover” in every person incarcerated “what we can call nothing less than the real presence of Christ.”

Linda Showman, project consultant for the archdiocesan Prison Ministry Office and conference organizer, acknowledged there are roadblocks in prison ministry.

“There is no doubt that the jail culture is challenging,” she said. She’s heard credible reports that the sacrament of reconciliation continues to be recorded in some jails. And the transitional nature of the prison population means volunteers can get discouraged.

But Showman said all Catholics, even individuals who do not enter a correctional institution, can play a role in the ministry.

“Racism, poverty, lack of education, untreated mental illness and disruptive family life are all major contributors to our social justice crisis and mass incarceration,” she said. “So when we volunteer in various ways to improve these conditions, support agencies and programs financially, and vote for reform, we are doing prison ministry.”

Roger Martin, lobbyist for the Oregon Catholic Conference, explained that the United States has more people per capita in prison than any other country in the world.

“Almost every Oregonian is totally ignorant of our prison system,” said Martin. “They do not know that injustice happens.”

Peters, a Catholic, is on the frontlines of reform.

Her biggest push inside the DOC is to implement approaches used in the Norwegian correctional system and thus make life for individuals who are incarcerated “more normal and more humane.”

“Our institutions should be places where punishment is the absence of freedom and community and where everything else models life from the outside as much as possible,” she said.

Peters has been studying the Scandinavian country’s system and visited Norway with her staff.

According to Peters, Oregon is seen as a leader in correctional justice work nationally. But after visiting Norway, she realized “how much further we have to go.”

The DOC head was sure to bring skeptics to see the innovative system.

Two days into the trip, a couple of correctional officers with decades of experience and a blatant distrust of the Norwegian approach came up to her with tears in their eyes.

“Boss, promise that when we go back we get to make a change,” Peters recalled one saying, “because I was so proud of how we were running our system when we left, and now I cannot morally go back and do the job the way we were doing it now that I’ve seen what I’ve seen.”

Peters said the correctional officers have served as ambassadors for the new vision but that she’ll need additional assistance. “All of you” can help through your ministry, she said, looking out at the full room.

Following Peters, Father William Dillard, director of spiritual formation at Mount Angel Seminary, deconstructed Christian forgiveness.

The priest said prisons have a lot of programming, but most of it is secular. “What we offer … is the power of the Holy Spirit, a deeply rooted theology and spirituality, and a lived experience of reconciliation.”

But “we cannot give what we do not have,” he said. “We can’t talk about reconciliation and forgiveness if we haven’t processed it or experienced it from the heart.” He went on to explain the need for Jesus’ help in order to fully relinquish resentments.

Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the Portland archdiocesan Office of Divine Worship, reminded volunteers about the importance of a reverent disposition when bringing Communion to those in prison. Participating in the Eucharist “is the most important thing we do as Catholics,” he said, and the language and postures used when bearing the Body of Christ should be “external signs that point to internal belief.”

While most conferencegoers were Catholic, a number of non-Catholics participated.

“I was deeply impressed by the speakers — deep theologians who really talked out of faith,” said Tim Cayton, a Presbyterian minister who helped oversee religious services at the state DOC for a decade. “I could so appreciate the way they articulated the faith and forgiveness and reaching out in the name of Christ.”

Deacon Bill Bloudek of St. Francis Parish in Sherwood ministers to women at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. He wishes more fellow Catholics could spend time observing the prison system firsthand.

He’d like them to recognize those who are incarcerated “as simply human beings who are trying to do better.”

In his talk, Archbishop Sample touched on the stories of four men in the Bible — Judas, Peter and the two thieves crucified beside Christ — and how they responded differently to God’s grace.

“What would have happened if that other thief had had time to come to know Jesus and his beautiful teaching of mercy? What would have happened to Judas if one of the other apostles could have gotten to him and reminded him of the Master’s goodness?”

In prison ministry, said the archbishop, “we have been given the incredible opportunity to do just that.”

“There is always hope,” he said. “And we are the agents of that hope.”