Extending mercy to those in prison or jail
By Peggy Moraczewski
Visiting the imprisoned is one of the Corporal Works of Mercy. Deacon E. Generes “Doots” Dufour was introduced to it when he substituted for a priest friend at a Travis County jail more than 40 years ago. He has been dedicated to criminal justice ministry ever since that life-changing day, and what began as a favor for a friend has evolved into the diocesan Office of Criminal Justice Ministry (CJM). Deacon Dufour serves as the director.
“The mission of the Criminal Justice Ministry is to promote Christ’s love and forgiveness through assistance, education and social interaction to the incarcerated and their families and to help those returning from prison successfully reintegrate back into society by becoming productive citizens,” according to John Gilluly, associate director of the diocesan CJM office.
While not minimizing the criminal behavior of offenders, Deacon Dufour stressed that many offenders’ lives are intertwined with the common threads of deep-rooted poverty and minimal adult guidance as children. An untapped spiritual life is another reality and, in this dark place, the CJM often becomes a source of light and solace to all those open to God’s mercy.
Deacon Ronnie Lastovica, who Bishop Joe Vásquez appointed as Pastoral Care Coordinator at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice – Gatesville in 2014, considers the CJM a “ministry of presence,” accentuating the value of sitting beside someone and simply listening. He teams with Father Harry Dean to minister to the imprisoned in Gatesville, where there are approximately 7,500 women and 3,500 men incarcerated in units ranging from dormitory living to cells to death row.
Although he is a relative newcomer to the CJM, Father Dean sees all of them as his flock.
“I take everyone at face value in the moment I am ministering to them. They are human beings, capable of remorse, with emotions,” he said. As a priest, his primary role is celebrating Mass and bringing the sacraments to the inmates. Father Dean shares Deacon Lastovica’s emphasis of the CJM as a ministry of Christ’s presence to offenders, to guards, to prison staff and to administration.
The sacrament of reconciliation plays an enormous role in spiritual healing, especially for those in prison, Gilluly said.
“Making a sacramental confession can be the most profound spiritual experience in the life of an offender,” he said. God’s mercy and forgiveness give them hope.
Beyond the Mass and sacraments, catechetical retreats based on Scripture have been offered for decades, reaching thousands of inmates, Deacon Dufour said.
“The object is to give them a better understanding of God and to build communities within the prison,” he said.
Kolbe Retreats (similar to ACTS) have been added more recently. Deacons and lay volunteers provide a range of other opportunities, including ongoing faith formation programs and Bible studies. Communion services, sacramental preparation programs and spiritual advising provide additional enrichment to the inmates. Last November, Bishop Joe Vásquez baptized four offenders and confirmed 14 at a women’s prison unit in the Gatesville area. Inmates at other prison units receive the sacraments of initiation (baptism, reconciliation and confirmation) upon completion of Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) or sacramental preparation programs.
The CJM encourages active participation in the Mass, and offenders can serve as lectors, altar servers or in the choir. Mass participation gives offenders a sense of belonging and develops connections to the body of Christ that are invaluable for their future, Deacon Lastovica said.
“Hearing the intercessory prayers of the offenders is a beautiful part of the liturgy, when they offer heartfelt prayers for their family members,” he said.
Upon release, offenders are encouraged to contact their local parish for spiritual or other support. Parish social ministries and Catholic organizations, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Charities of Central Texas, offer material assistance and helpful programs for the transition back into society.
In the 15 years that he has been working with inmates, Deacon Lastovica has witnessed many positive encounters.
“We’re seeing changed souls just in the short time we’ve been here,” he said. He credits his hope-filled spirituality to the waters of his baptism and the graces received through the sacrament of holy orders.
Future goals for the CJM include assuring a ministry presence in all prison units throughout the diocese, developing a formal volunteer training program in conjunction with the diocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, engaging more parish social outreach ministries, and standardizing faith formation programs such as RCIA, Gilluly said.
Volunteers can be actively engaged in a number of ways, for example a parish choir visits a prison unit monthly, blessing offenders with beautiful liturgical music. But a physical presence in the jails or prisons is not the only way one can serve in the CJM. A Rosary Ministry provides rosaries for inmates, and the Lake Travis Thrift Shop operated by the Ladies of Charity donates clothing to prison units for inmates to receive upon release. Deacon Dufour offers gift cards for work boots, saying, “We manifest God’s presence and let them know someone cares.”
Deacon Lastovica emphasizes this message to offenders, “The failures in our lives do not identify us. Who we are, is a child of God. Re-establishing who they (offenders) really are is essential.”
Deacon Dufour said the Catholic Spirit newspaper is available in jails and prisons. As inmates read this publication, he suggests that all Catholics consider offering prayers of intercession on behalf of the imprisoned.
“Ask that their hearts be open to the Holy Spirit, so they can heal through the mercy and forgiveness of our awesome God,” he encouraged.
Those interested in learning more about the Criminal Justice Ministry may contact John Gilluly at email@example.com or Deacon Doots Dufour at firstname.lastname@example.org.