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7th SEPTEMBER 2003

My brothers and sisters, it is a great honour to share the word of God with you today. As you gather for the Eleventh international conference of Catholic Prison Chaplains. ICCPPC, the readings today speak to the very heart of your work.

  In the First reading from Isaiah God speaks to those who are afraid, Be strong, fear not. I am sure that many, if not all of you have spoken those 4 words – to prisoners who felt abandoned or forgotten, whose lives were broken by guilt or shame or who were frightened and afraid on arriving in prison for the first time.  Most tragically of all, some of you here will have spoken those or very similar words to prisoners awaiting execution. In your compassion and pastoral care you are ambassadors of Christ to a broken world.

  Our Psalm speaks to prisoners too   The Lord sets captives free….and raises up those who were bowed down.  Our God is a God of Justice.  You must be people who build justice, demand justice, and you must be champions of justice. Not the justice of this world, which so often just appeases public opinion, but the justice of God:  a justice that restores and heals, a justice of compassion love and mercy.  You will not need to be told by me about the importance of restorative justice.  Indeed prison chaplains throughout the world have been at the vanguard of the campaign for restorative justice.

  In Mark’s Gospel today Jesus heals the deaf man who had a speech impediment. Perhaps unable to hear any but muffled sounds,  he never learned to formulate the right sounds. One defect was caused by the other.

  In your discussions and deliberations over the next week you will I would hope reflect on the man in today’s Gospel?  The causes of crime are varied, and while we can not ignore personal responsibility or indeed personal irresponsibility, it is beyond doubt that one of the major factors in the cause of crime and criminal behaviour is poverty and social disadvantage. In prison you find the poor far more than the wealthy, the vulnerable far more than the strong, the disadvantaged more than the influential.

  In healing the deaf man who had a speech impediment we see that Jesus wishes to change not just the effect but the cause as well.

  I do not feel that I am a stranger here today. On my return to Ireland after the last Consistory at which His Holiness, Pope John Paul  elevated me to the College of Cardinals, my first pastoral visit on my return to Ireland was to a Prison in Dublin  for the celebration of Eucharist. It was not my first visit to a prison in my Diocese and it has not been my last. I have been touched by the dedication of many Irish Prison Officers who care so diligently for our prisoners. In particular I greatly appreciate the dedication and commitment of the prison chaplains in my diocese, and in this country. I know that prison chaplains are people of dedication. Your Ministry must surely be the most demanding pastoral ministry within the Church.  Many of you must feel frustrated at times when confronted with failures, or with the slow pace of change. As you try to make what can be an inhumane system more humane, realise that although change will not happen overnight, God is with you.  Of this you must be sure.

  Prison Chaplains have a friend and advocate in Pope John Paul and I would like to re-echo the words of the Holy Father in his exhortation for Jubilee Year when he said. Prisons should not be a corrupting experience, a place of idleness but instead a place of redemption

  During the last 24 hours before his crucifixion Jesus of Nazareth was a prisoner.  Though innocent he was a wanted man, arrested, taken into custody, interrogated, accused, judged, sentenced and finally executed He passed through the criminal justice system of the time, and in doing so he sanctified the most   despised of society. He died with a prisoner by each side. The Church which began its life at Pentecost spent its formative years in prisons and the Church can be said to have grown to maturity in prison cells.  St. Paul whose life shows us that people can and do change died a prisoner Most of the early Popes died as prisoners  and here in this very diocese our Martyrs died as prisoners.

  The early Eucharistic prayers always mentioned those in prison and that connection is continued today by the Church in the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer   To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation, to prisoners freedom, and to those is sorrow joy.

  I know that prisoners here in Ireland easily identify with the Good Friday liturgy, and I am sure that your prisoners do so also - because of its setting, Betrayal-Arrest-interrogation-Trial-Conviction-Execution - A mother and her friends crying at the brutality and sacrilege of it all.

  However we must not forget that Good Friday is not the end, it is a tragic part of the story but not the fullness of the story. The fullness is the Resurrection; Easter Sunday is the undoing of what was done on Good Friday. There must be Resurrection in your ministry. When a drug addict climbs out of the grave of addiction, he is a person of the resurrection, when sex-offenders change their behaviour they too are people of the resurrection.

  The resurrection must not just be seen as something which is an historic event in the life of Jesus or a future-hoped-for-event for the individual, it must be today, and we must be people of the resurrection. Here and now, during this Conference and in the prison cells of the world.

  It is important to also be aware of the victims of crime. Many people are seriously damaged by what is wrongly called minor crime. Even something which appears minor, such as a woman having their purse robbed or a man having his wallet stolen can cause severe trauma. In some cases the victims of crime spend the rest of their life in their own prison. Where every noise at night not matter how innocent has the potential to cause unimaginable fear. Victims have often been ignored, and once they have given evidence and the trial concluded they have been forgotten, and left to deal with pain on their own, in the vain hope that they would somehow just get over it. As a Church, as a Society and as a State we have often ignored the needs of victims and in doing so we have only compounded the original offence. Rather than being instruments of healing we have sometimes been instruments of further pain and anguish.

  The needs of Victims must be paramount in a justice system. This does not mean that justice must be vengeful of merciless. Rather it is the opposite. Healing of the damage done to the victim, must become as important as prosecuting the criminal. Great advances are being made in this area. Canada in particular has an impressive victim-offender mediation program, and even here in Ireland we have a pilot program in Dublin. It is the prayer of all of us here, not just that there be no more victims of crime, but that those already injured by crime may fine healing and dignity and respect, and that their lives may become the lives that Jesus wished for them.

  I am conscious too of the other casualties of imprisonment, the prisoner’s families.   In particular I think of the mothers of prisoners, the unsung heroes who suffer with their children. I pray that Our Lady, Mother of Jesus will comfort them in their time of distress. I ask God’s blessing on you all as you gather for your important International Conference. I hope you are revitalised during your time in Ireland and I look forward to receiving your Conference Resolution.