The Catholic perspective on crime and criminal justice was explored and examined through the themes of “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration” at the Statewide Criminal Justice Ministry Conference, held at Oblate School of Theology Oct. 25-26. In his keynote presentation to open the gathering, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, MSpS, addressed the responsibility of the church in criminal justice and evangelization as a foundation for change. He covered the role of the church in all facets of Catholic jail ministry, including pastoral care of the offender, the victim, the families and the community with a focus on evangelization to help all impacted by crime, as well as the need for conversion and restorative justice.
“The bedrock of Catholic social teaching is the inherent and inalienable dignity of every human person created in the ‘image and likeness’ of God, a dignity we all have to defend and nurture,” said the archbishop. “But what about punishment for crimes?” he asked. “We are made in the ‘image and likeness’ of God, but we also have the capacity within ourselves to do evil, engage in violence, hurt others.” Archbishop Gustavo then listed three basic approaches to sin in the Old Testament. The oldest is a taboo. “We don’t do (something) in our community. But why?” he again asked. “The reason is lost in the ancient past, but we don’t do it now!” The second and most recent is a legalistic approach: We don’t do (something) because it is against the law. “The Pharisees at the time of Jesus were experts in casuistry or case law, examining the torah and applying it to new circumstances,” the archbishop explained. “That is very valuable to the community of faith, but it does not necessarily get at the underlying purpose of the law.” The third or classical approach is found especially in the prophetic books and is reflected in the teaching of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Said Archbishop Gustavo, “This approach says we don’t (something) because it affects our relationships — with self, with others, with God.” “The underlying purpose of the Law or torah is to help the community of faith establish, maintain and restore, when necessary, right or just relationships that were broken by sin,” he continued. “This requires acknowledgement of the sin and its consequences, and attempts to reconcile with those hurt by the sin, to bring healing, restore a sense of community.”
Archbishop Gustavo lamented that the criminal justice system in the United States focuses on the offenders and often neglects the victims and their families, the families of the offenders and the communities impacted by the offense. However, he emphasized, “Restorative justice is consonant with the classical biblical view of sin as disrupting right or just relationships and the need for healing and eventual reconciliation of all involved.” The archbishop then explored many valuable approaches to ministry in jails and prisons. Some center on the celebration of the sacraments of penance and Eucharist. Others focus on a Catholic apologetic approach. Still others involve distributing Bibles, books, pamphlets. Yet others focus on small group discussions or prayer sessions. “The work is never easy,” Archbishop Gustavo acknowledged. “Those incarcerated develop a hardness and cynicism that is related to their self-image, the dangers of incarceration itself, mental health disorders and many other causes. Some come into the criminal justice system already hardened, shaped by the environment in which they grew up.” According to the San Antonio prelate, chaplains sometimes say that offenders come to prayer or Bible sessions primarily because of the coffee being served. Others have said that the main reason why offenders want to see a chaplain is to try to get extra toilet paper. “On the other hand, such sessions do provide a time and space outside the cell while time within the cell often passes very, very slowly,” he said. “Setting an environment in which an offender feels safe — physically, emotionally and spiritually — can be very conducive to eventual helpful reflection and prayer.” Archbishop Gustavo stressed to the audience that it is clear that the entire church has much to do in educating its people — about sin and its consequences, and the dignity and value of every human person. “We also have much to do in order to help bring healing and reconciliation — to offenders, victims, their respective families and their communities,” he said. “We also have a long list of advocacy actions related to reforms in the criminal justice system.” The archbishop specifically mentioned the issues of capital punishment, solitary confinement, rehabilitation alongside punishment, mandatory sentencing laws and minors being treated as adult offenders. “It is also of great concern to me,” he said, “that while the overall U.S. prison population is decreasing, the number of detentions of undocumented persons is increasing.” Archbishop Gustavo shed light on a controversial quota driving the immigration detention boom. The Washington Post reported two weeks ago that this is caused by a little-known congressional directive known on Capitol Hill as the “bed mandate.” This policy requires ICE to keep an average of 34,000 detainees per day in its custody — even though they are not violent offenders. “This is closely related to the detention center industry,” he stated. “These for-profit centers raise serious questions regarding respect for the human rights of detainees, and vigorous lobbying from this industry is often cited as one of the reasons why comprehensive immigration reform has difficulty in gaining full Congressional support. As federal, state and local prison populations decline, the profits of this private industry depend on keeping a broken immigration system in place with added detentions!”
Conceding there is clearly a lot of work to do, Archbishop Gustavo followed up with, “But how shall we do it?” He then delved into Pope Francis’ unique style of pastoral leadership. “His humility, honesty and courage are remarkable. There is no doubt that he proclaims the Lord Jesus and his Gospel every day. He has stressed God’s mercy and compassion, the need for healing and forgiveness. He has called for a ‘climate of encounter’ to replace a ‘climate of clash,’” said the archbishop. “We have been used to thinking about a ‘culture of life’ to replace a ‘culture of death,’ and that is still very much a part of the church’s mission and ministry. But encounter and dialogue are also consistent with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.” The prelate brought up many, many instances of Pope Francis’ own “encounter” with people — with youth at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Mass and lunch with Vatican gardeners and other workers, correspondence and an interview with an atheist. “But to me,” he proclaimed, “the most powerful encounter — without words — was his washing and kissing the feet of prisoners in Rome on Holy Thursday. One was a woman — raising eyebrows, of course. One was a Muslim — raising other eyebrows. It was a direct, powerful proclamation of the Gospel of God’s love for all of his people. It reminds us of his namesake, St. Francis Assisi, who is credited with saying: ‘Proclaim the Gospel always, using words if needed.’”
There are many things that divide Americans, but thanksgiving is something we have always been able to share. Since I have arrived in El Paso I have come to know that the first Thanksgiving actually took place when the Spaniards of Oñate’s exploration finally arrived at the river we now call the Rio Grande on April the 30th, 1598 and the Native Americans there shared a meal with the exhausted travelers. Thanksgiving was given to God and Mass was celebrated. Whether we were Native Americans or Spaniards, Puritans, Baptists or Catholics we have all held the common conviction that we owe praise and thanksgiving to One alone. God is the source of every good thing. As one well-known hymn puts it “all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above…” The fact is that we are a thankful people. We thank God for many blessings. For us in this nation, particularly in this community, our list ought to be very long. As we say in the Preface at Mass, “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks…” But what about times when things don’t go our way? How ought we to respond when prayers seem to go unanswered. Can we in fact give thanks when we face these very challenging economic times; when many have seen paychecks shrink and jobs disappear? What are we to say to God when our health is not good and our children are not making the choices that we would encourage? Can we be thankful then or do we ration out our thanks to God according to the level of His cooperation? What does Jesus have to say about that which constitutes an appropriate occasion to give thanks? Most of us would agree that we certainly owe God thanks when he numbers us among the blest. In some translations of the Bible that word “blest” is translated, “happy”. For most of us that group would include those who are experiencing success and for whom all is going well. Then what about the Beatitudes?? Jesus says, “Blest are the poor in spirit, blest are those who mourn, blest are the pure in heart”, etc. (see Matt. 5) Could it be that those who are poor (in spirit or otherwise) have reason to be thankful? Is it possible that those who mourn might also turn to God in thanksgiving? At the Last Supper, on the night before he died, Jesus gave thanks to his Heavenly Father in the sacred meal that very early on came to be known as Eucharist, a Greek word that means, ‘Thanksgiving’. It is somewhat shocking when we consider and realize anew that Jesus is thanking and praising his Heavenly Father on the night that he knows will lead to his suffering and death. St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians brings this whole line of thought to what may at first sight appear to be an unavoidable, but incomprehensible, extreme. He proclaims with gusto, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings…!” (Col. 1:24) Anyone, it seems to me, with just a hint of Faith can give thanks when things go their way. If we are to take these teachings of Christ and of Paul, his Apostle, seriously we must conclude that what distinguishes the person of deep and living Faith is that they can always see God’s hand at work, even in the midst of difficulty and hardshipeven in the face of death itself.
It is not a matter of welcoming the evil that comes our way. What the Christian recognizes is that God is not defeated by evil. God’s plan is not thwarted when hardship descends upon us. Jesus stares suffering and death in the face; he enters into them and transforms these ancient curses into the path of life! God does His best work in the midst of evil. So I would like to send you to your Thanksgiving Feasts as Jesus did the man he had healed from leprosy-the one who returned to give thanks. When you gather around the table and mention the things for which you give thanks, I invite you to expand your list. Thank God for your financial difficulties, which remind you to trust in God alone. Thank God for your family conflicts, which give you the opportunity to reach out in an unconditional love like Jesus who “loved us while we were yet sinners”. Thank God for your physical infirmities, which remind you that this life is not a stroll through paradise. Yes, you can even thank God for the death of the body, which for the one who seeks God’s mercy opens the door to eternal life. May our union with Christ come to be such that the words of St. Paul may take root in us. “In whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3: 17).
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