One of the 7 corporal works of mercy is “to visit the imprisoned,” but this can be tricky to put into practice. Practically speaking, how can the modern Christian share Christ’s love with those in prison?
Practicing this work of mercy is especially challenging during the pandemic. Prisons across the country have suspended most volunteer activities.
The good news is that there’s a little-known but immensely impactful ministry that makes it easy to “visit the imprisoned” from your own home. The Order of Malta organizes a Prison Ministry Apostolate, connecting volunteers as “pen pals” with incarcerated persons.
“The pen pal ministry provides a safe and convenient way for people to answer the call to visit Christ in prison through correspondence,” said Doug Sandvig, Chairman of the Prison Ministry Committee of the Order of Malta, in an interview with Aleteia.
The Order of Malta is a 900-year-old lay/religious order of the Catholic Church. “Our charism is to serve the poor and the sick and to defend the faith,” Sandvig said. “Prison ministry is one of the ways we serve the poor and those in need of healing.”
Volunteers can write directly to an inmate, offering encouragement for positive growth. With safety in mind, pen pals do not reveal their full names or addresses. “The inmate replies to our P.O. box and we forward the correspondence to their volunteer pal,” Sandvig said. Order of Malta coordinators are available as needed to answer questions and guide volunteers.
“Prison ministry is a ministry of presence. Pope Francis frequently underscores the importance of accompaniment to those on the margins,” Sandvig said. “Every letter to an inmate is an affirmation of their human dignity and confirmation that they have not been forgotten.”
A small act of kindness, like receiving a letter, can have a life-changing effect on a person in prison. Prison is often a harsh environment, and a thoughtful gesture might mean the world.
The way an act of kindness can change an inmate’s life is memorably illustrated in a new memoir, Jim Wahlberg’s The Big Hustle. Like a modern-day Augustine’s Confessions, The Big Hustle reveals Wahlberg’s gripping conversion story from a violent criminal to a devoted and faithful Christian.
Wahlberg first entered prison at age 17 and served his five-year sentence at various medium and maximum security prisons. Most of his sentence was spent in the segregation unit, or “the hole.”
“It’s a nightmare that you can’t wake up from” (64), Wahlberg writes in The Big Hustle.
The book includes many stories from his time, including both his own experiences and the stories of other men he met there.
He found moments of friendship and kindness, but much of his time in maximum-security prison was dehumanizing and torturous. He recalls, “The mental pressure was just so intense. You did not want to fall out of favor with the other prisoners—hardened criminals that could kill you or torture you or make your life a living hell, just for one mistake” (65).
After serving his five-year sentence, Wahlberg was out of prison for six months before he committed another crime and received a six- to nine-year sentence. It was during this second sentence that a brief encounter with Mother Teresa changed his life.
On June 4, 1988, Mother Teresa happened to visit the maximum-security prison where Wahlberg was living. She was invited by an inmate at the prison, a former monk who had been corresponding with her for two years.
During her visit, Mother Teresa and the sisters from her order stayed with the inmates for Mass, kneeling beside them as “brothers and sisters before Christ” (80), Wahlberg recalled.
Then Mother Teresa gave a 15-minute address to the prisoners. She told them, ″I will not forget you. I have you in the palm of my hand. You are precious to me. I love you.″
Wahlberg vividly recalls the transformative impact that Mother Teresa’s compassion had on him. He writes,
For the first time in my life, I saw the face of Christ. The face of love. Mother Teresa knew that we weren’t just inmates. Prisoners. The wretched of the earth. We had names, we had stories, we had souls. When asked by the press why she had come, she responded simply, “You must find the face of God on the faces of these prisoners.” (80)
Wahlberg ended up becoming a faithful Catholic in prison, thanks both to Mother Teresa and to the influence of a holy prison chaplain, Father Jim Fratus. He received the Sacrament of Confirmation not long after Mother Teresa’s visit, and was released on parole after serving half of the minimum for his sentence.
“That moment with Mother Teresa changed my life,” (82) he wrote decades later in The Big Hustle.
Mother Teresa and Father Fratus brought Christ’s love to Wahlberg when he was a deeply troubled young man. In a similar way, anyone participating in the pen pal ministry can bring charity and encouragement to a prisoner today.
“It is a badge of honor for an inmate to hear his name called at a mail call,” Sandvig said. “Our letters bring encouragement, hope and the love of Christ to those who desperately need it.”
He encourages anyone interested to sign up for the pen pal ministry: “Your letters will have more impact than you can begin to imagine.”
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