Jesuit Father George Williams wears both priestly vestments and a black stab-proof vest when he celebrates Mass. The worshippers sit on wooden benches that are bolted to the floor.
The priest’s congregation are men on San Quentin’s death row.
Sister Camille D’Arienzo of Brooklyn, who will speak in Vineland this weekend, recently interviewed Father Williams for her regular column in National Catholic Reporter.
“There’s a harsh fluorescent light overhead,” Father Williams told her, “and as I raise the consecrated host, the light illuminates it.”
Father Williams and Sister Camille are among the few people who voluntarily go behind bars. There will be a gathering for others like them – men and women who minister to prison inmates – on May 3 at Immaculate Conception Hall on the grounds of Pope John Paul II Center, Vineland.
Bishop Dennis Sullivan – who celebrated Mass at South Woods State Prison, Bridgeton, on Holy Thursday – will offer remarks and the closing prayer.
The day will include reports from prison ministry workers in Camden, Gibbsboro, Bridgeton and Egg Harbor Township. The event is being held for those involved in prison ministry but is open to the general public.
Sister Camille will be the guest speaker for the day. A social activist, death penalty opponent and former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, she will offer reflections on Matthew 25:36 – “I was in prison and you visited me.”
Sister Camille has been a spiritual advisor for many years to David Paul Hammer, a death row inmate who converted to Catholicism while incarcerated. It was a role she did not seek out and accepted only because she could find no one else to take it. But she says the experience has been both spiritually rewarding and enlightening for her.
Not that she’s naive about men behind bars. They have done things that “cannot be undone,” she said. Furthermore, she said, many are sociopaths who remain unrepentant.
When talking about prison ministry Sister Camille talks about both the Christian obligation to minister to those in need, whoever they are, and the possibility of their redemption.
“In every person there is a spark of the divine,” she said. “We can have a positive influence on people who are incarcerated.” Individuals, she believes, are more than their worst behavior.
Sister Camille explained that Hammer tried but could not get Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh to feel remorse when the two prisoners were incarcerated on the same tier in Terre Haute, Ind.
“It hasn’t always been easy for me to call Tim my friend,” Hammer wrote in a letter to a priest before McVeigh was executed in 2001. “Nevertheless, I love him as God commands that we all love one another.”
Sister Camille believes one of the most needed reforms of the prison system is the training of prison guards. She emphasized that some are “wonderful,” but others “dehumanize the people under their care.”
Sister Camille is one of the founders of The Cherish Life Circle, a group that provides support for a circle of friends opposed to the death penalty. The group developed the “Declaration of Life,” a non-legally binding document that shares a personal belief in the sacredness of all life. In the event of death by murder, those closest to the deceased are expected to provide the document for the court’s consideration.
The document proclaims: “I hereby declare that should I die as a result of violent crime, I request that the person or person found guilty for my killing not be subject to, or put in jeopardy of the death penalty under any circumstances, no matter how heinous their crime, or how much I have suffered.”
If you go
Pastoral Care in Prison Ministry will be held May 3, 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Immaculate Conception Hall, on the grounds of Pope John Paul II Center, 414 South 8th Street, Vineland. Free will offering. For information, contact Sister Mary Lou Lafferty, 856-342-4106, MaryLou.Lafferty@camdendiocese.org