Photo by Brett Sayles.

Sr Virginia writes about her ministry and experience as a Prison Chaplain.

I have worked as a Prison Chaplain for nearly four and a half years; three years at Long Bay Correctional Centre, and currently at Lithgow in NSW, a maximum-security prison for adult men.

I see my role as ‘walking alongside’ the men, while they discover (or recover) their own inner resources and answers, which will help them navigate their own unique path. I try to open a space where there is no judgement, just some compassion and understanding.

I am also a Chaplain for all staff who work onsite. It is a challenging environment, and the potential for trauma is much higher than most people would face in their workplace.

In addition to being a Chaplain, I am also there for the families of the men if they need it. The families experience a lot of suffering with their loved one in gaol.

My day has variety. I run Chapel Services on a Sunday, visit men in all parts of the centre, and often take Holy Communion to them. In tandem with my Chaplaincy colleague who is an Anglican Minister, I run programs: the Positive Lifestyle Program (a Salvation Army initiative to build self-awareness) and the Seasons for Growth Program (a MacKillop Seasons program dealing with loss, grief and change).

I purchase clothing for men who are being released and drive them to the local railway or bus station. Through the generosity of the Josephites, I am able to purchase resources that nourish the spiritual life (books, Bibles, rosary beads, prayer cards etc.) and clothing which adds to one’s sartorial elegance, on exit!

Each month, we welcome Father Mark McGuigan to share Eucharist and enjoy each other’s company.

It would be naive to say that there are not complex and multi-layered levels of challenge around the life of a gaol. There are no quick fixes.

Our commitment is to keep working within the parameters. To keep ‘holding the pastoral space’.

I continue to learn much and some of my reflections are:

  • As human beings we all need to be ‘loved properly’. If we haven’t been loved genuinely, it can have all sorts of detrimental effects on us.
  • Where we have unresolved pain and hurt, we have open wounds. We can’t function well with open wounds.
  • If no one has taught us about ‘other possibilities’, we just keep doing what we know.
  • It is only through real, loving human encounter, that we have a chance to choose change.

In recent times, there has been much written about interconnectedness. When we care for the people at Lithgow gaol, we care for ourselves. We reflect the tender and passionate love of God, who loves no matter the geographical location!

Maybe Brother Graham Neist FMS and Mr Robbie Williams can summarise my musings:

Graham says: “Turn up.”
And Robbie says:  “As my soul heals the shame, I will grow through this pain. Lord I’m doing all I can, to be a better man.”

Virginia McGrath rsj