The International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care organised its XIV World Congress of Prison Pastoral Care which was hosted in Panamá from 7-11 February. There were 55 participants from 41 countries: Algeria, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Cameroon, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Egypt, England & Wales, Estonia, France, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, India, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Latvia, Lebanon, New Zealand, Nigeria, Panamá, Perú, Poland, Puerto Rico, Scotland, Spain, South Africa, The Netherlands, The United States of America, Taiwan, Venezuela and Zambia.
The event was attended by the Apostolic Nuncio, Mons. Andrés Carrascosa, and a delegate from the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy. The lectures were delivered by Prof. Dr. Theo de Wit of the Catholic University of Tilburg of the Netherlands: "A reflection on the hope of 'criminals'"; Dr. Elvy Monzant, Executive Secretary of the Justice and Solidarity Department of the Latin American Episcopal Council: "Church on the outskirts: poor for the poor"; And the Rev. Jorge García Cuerva, ICCPPC representative for Latin America: "Approaches to a prison spirituality". All the themes developed were reflected in groups, by linguistic affinity and geographical proximity.
Recently, the final declaration of the Congress was published:
We as members of the ICCPPC, gathered at Panama City for our congress with the main theme being “Are you the Christ? Discover Christ in the crucified today”, had many fruitful discussions, many special encounters and some unforgettable spiritual moments. Let us summarize the main themes of our congress, some main results and the challenges that we have before us.
· Our speakers concentrated on the works of Pope Francis and his many pleas for a ‘church of the poor for the poor’. From the beginning of his Pontificate, the Pope has stressed the importance of prison chaplaincy and its potential to transform society. In many parts of the world today, dealing with criminality is driven by fear, instead of love. There are countries in the world today which are undergoing some tragic situations in the fight against crime such as the elimination and killing of hundreds of people, many of them children, both outside and inside the prison walls which have become prevalent and shock the societies and churches where these events are occurring.
· In their contacts with prisoners many chaplains and volunteers experience that inmates desperately long for a sense of belonging –a community. Let us say harshly: if we as society and as church cannot offer them a sense of belonging, they will form their own community often based on further criminal activity.
· At this congress we became increasingly aware of the great diversity in the context of our world, of the church-state relationships, and the possibilities and challenges faced by all those involved in prison pastoral care following on from these contexts. What is true about the awareness of the impact of prison pastoral care on society can equally be applied to the vitality of our churches. In some cases making the church and the bishops more aware is our first task. As Pope Francis learned, we must find God in the midst of our realities, not with closed eyes.
· Many others observed that a lot of prisons are places of death. The first task of those engaged in prison pastoral care is to be a presence in the middle of people, to develop personal relationships of trust and hope, instead of referring constantly to statistics. Prisoners are fellow citizens with whom we travel on our pilgrim journey, called by God to be the salt of the earth –a light for the world. In short, our approach must be Christo-Centric. We must learn to ‘touch on the wounds of the Lord’ in prison. And some speakers, added we must practice ‘a spiritualty of questioning’. The simple question: ‘Why do these children suffer?’ makes us humble. Without love we bear no fruit and without faith and charity we end in frustration.
· “Prisons are tear factories but there is no room for crying” was a quote.. But as Jesus wept for Lazarus, so we can learn that tears can be signs of hope, and that hope is not to be confused with optimism based on rational calculation and statistics. Therefore, our spirituality should be joyful also, and looking for the rainbow we walk hand in hand with those in prison.
· In several of our meetings, the great contribution of the volunteers was discussed and praised. “I cannot do it alone” was the ‘cri de Coeur’ of more than a few during one session and all agreed on this point.
· We also had an overwhelming consensus that following the teaching of Pope Francis, particularly as we have just concluded the Year of Mercy and backed by a significant amount of scientific research, that our approach should be restorative (Justitia Restorative). Every day in our practice we have to find the difficult balance between justice and mercy. While mercy is stressed as a key component of our ministry, the situations faced by the victims of crime was also raised and discussed and that a further challenge for all engaged in restorative justice is that we must walk alongside both victims and ensuring that the healing based on the love and mercy of God is received by both victim and prisoner as they enter society together.
· Just as our mother Mary witnessed the death of her Son on the cross a remark was made in Panama that emphasised her role in the Incarnation and that the intercession of Mary be invoked in all our work.
· It was also stressed that the role of the prisoner and his/her sharing of life experiences and faith was also enriching and many of those working in prison spoke of the way they had grown as a person through many such encounters.
· Finally we agreed on the need to work on an interfaith base and to practice interreligious dialogue. In many prisons, the team of prison chaplains is in fact a cooperation between people of diverse religious confessions, and other forms of belief. We have the opportunity, to give a good example of peaceful cooperation, against fundamentalist forms of exclusion and hate.