LETTER OF ARCHBISHOP RENATO
I would like to thank you for the invitation to take part in your world Congress. I see it as a sign of the interest your Commission attaches to collaboration with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. While I regret that I cannot be with you, I am pleased to ask my principal collaborator, Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, Secretary of our Dicastery, to be my representative at your Congress.
Catholic prison chaplains have a very demanding mission: they are called to respond directly to a Gospel instruction (cf. Mt 25: 35-45), to demonstrate Jesus Christ's love in a particularly difficult environment and circumstances that are often tragic, thereby helping sow the seeds of a hope that is more necessary than ever to those who need to be reconciled to God and mankind.
However, such a ministry, which is primarily religious, cannot dispense with a rigorous reflection on the social causes of criminality, the conditions that mark prison life, and the laws that define crime and punishment.
In short, the Catholic prison chaplain must be familiar with the Church's social teaching, which it is the mandate of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace to make known and to disseminate.
The inalienable dignity of every human person, even if he is tainted by a crime; justice, which must guide police investigations, judicial procedures and prison sentences; respect for a "state of rights" that is the best guarantee of the human rights of every person, including those in prison: these are some of the basic principles promoted by the Magisterium of the Church, especially in the context in which the Catholic prison chaplain carries out his pastoral responsibilities.
Pope Pius XII, on receiving participants at the first Congress of Italian Chaplains in 1947, noted that this office would acquire more and more of a charitable and social character, and asked the chaplains to go beyond the purely social aspects of their action.
Today, these aspects have evolved, and the context of the chaplains' ministry is growing ever more complex, to the point that even the appeal the Holy Father John Paul II launched on the occasion of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, asking "for a gesture of clemency towards all those in prison" (Message for the Day of Jubilee for Prisoners, 24 June 2000, n. 7; ORE, 5 July 2000, p. 4) did not have the desired feedback.
The atmosphere of insecurity leads public opinion to adopt a more severe attitude regarding criminals. This pressure does not obtain adequate responses at the level of political leaders who are usually concentrating more on results at election time.
Consequently, alas, scant attention is reserved for a proper evaluation of the real goals of imprisonment, and those serving prison sentences have reduced chances of full reintegration into civil life on completing their sentence.
Added to all this is the overcrowding in prisons, bringing us face to face with a situation that is constantly on the point of exploding and provoking cycles of bloody insurrection.
You have chosen a good theme for your Congress: Prisons of the Third Millennium Pose a Challenge to the Church, to the State and to Society. In fact, we should gauge the size of this challenge correctly, relying on God's help to deal with it effectively.
We must first assume the right perspective by viewing prisoners as a pastoral priority.
Chaplains must closely follow the development of the problems of the penitentiary system. For example, there is one current of thought, of a minority but spreading, that would like to remove the administration of prisons from the State, claiming that the public system is too expensive and not effective enough. In this context, it would also be a matter of promoting a sort of "privatization", contracting out to private entities the management of prisons.
Such an option must on no account allow the prison sentence to become a lucrative proposition, dominated by the logic of profit. No reform must ever lose sight of the priority in this area that continues to be absolute respect for the dignity of condemned persons and their rehabilitation in society.
Catholic prison chaplains should study these issues in order to offer the precious contribution of their experience that is indispensable in implementing the Church's social teaching.
Lastly, I would like to recall that your pastoral action involves aspects which need to be treated with the greatest discretion. It is necessary, at all costs, to ensure that the mystery of the sacrament of Reconciliation be preserved: never hear the confession of prisoners in an environment that does not guarantee the indispensable confidentiality.
As I encourage you to persevere in your mission, awaiting the results of your Congress, I ask the Lord to make your ministry with prisoners ever more fruitful.
Archbishop Renato R. Martino