Italy, consecrated volunteers in prisons network

A prison chaplaincy, why not?

 Una cappellania carceraria, perché no?  DCM-005
06 May 2023

These nuns are not the candy and crochet types.  The 250 or so women, who for the past couple of years have made up the “prison pastoral” branch of the Union of Major Superiors of Italy (USMI), have a project. A horizon too. Theirs’s includes the bringing of women's specific skills to the voluntary service in prison and to build themselves as a group that follows common training paths and seek continuity in assignments in order to be able to give it to the projects of the different prison institutes. In addition, and albeit as volunteers -so therefore on a different level-, to collaborate on an equal footing with the prison chaplains, who are employees of the prison administration and have the “stewardship” of the management of religious assistance.

 “When I arrived in 2020 there was already an organisation -albeit still in an embryonic form-, with a sister who coordinated with the inspectorate, and with the chaplains. For a while, we went continued in this fashion, and then we became the “prison pastoral” section of USMI, with a logo and a framework. In other words, we have come home, because as consecrated women who work in prisons, like all the other pastoral dimensions, we are part of the USMI. Sister Nicoletta Vessoni, of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Poverelle of Bergamo, can be described as a force of nature. Born in 1950, she is the coordinator of this project involving many women who are drawn to voluntary work in the sphere of a prison. “We are a co-ordination of consecrated women” in which religious women, consecrated laywomen, institutes such as Villaregia, Ordo virginum, and others besides, are united in the special consecration”. A network has been built, mapping the regions, with regional contact persons and deputies. Therefore, the goal was to broaden our horizons. “We don't just work inside prison institutes, for ours it is a much broader world, and more complicated too, with areas and people that intersect with prison. This includes families, those leaving to take advantage of alternatives to detention, the inmate on the way out”.

In addition to operationally defining the intervention horizon and the organisational framework, the sisters also wanted to “theologically' rethink the meaning of being women at the service of the lowly in the Church’”. The meeting with the theologian Stella Morra, says Sister Nicoletta, was decisive. “She provoked us a lot, while emphasizing two things in particular. The first, prison, like all places of great suffering, is a generative space; the second, those services that are tiring, a bit disorganized because they do not have precise delimitations, allow new things to be created. For two and a half years with Stella, at a distance, we did training, and between one meeting and the next we would confront each other, to actuate those provocations”.

Working on one’s own individuality, which is typically a female trait, has meant making training not just a one-size fits all activity but to think of it as an opportunity for growth and continuity. There are national meetings three times a year when we gather, and then there are online, and regional encounters. There are times when it is still a struggle. I have even found resistance to starting the group. It is very much a matter of relationships, of meetings. It takes a lot of time. In May, on the 20 and 21, there will be a national conference on Being Women in Prison.

Sister Nicoletta knows that laying the foundations, while building the network is indispensable for giving continuity to the project. Although she would not want to be away  too long from her work as a volunteer in prison. This prison service was established by chance and then continued thanks to the unexpected twists and turns of life. “While I was in Rome for my last exam before my thesis, the General Manager asked me to substitute a nun in the Bergamo prison for at least two months. It was the first time I had stepped through the door of a prison”. While there, she continues, “I discovered that people who are in serious distress are willing to experience sincere relationships without raising barriers, and then the relationship becomes intense deep and very intimate”.   She leaves amidst tears and sobs, clutching in her hands “some small objects, which seemed precious things to me, a rose, a small picture and some handicrafts accompanied by letters given to me by the guests”. The second encounter with in a prison context took place in Brescia, but this time is was due to a family matter. An uncle had been arrested and Nicoletta Vessoni ended up being the only person to visit him. “I stood in line like everyone else and experienced the rigmarole every family member goes through, made up of waiting, searches, and questions”. Finally, in 2005, while destined for Sassari, she took part in the service her community has with the prison, which hosts girls who are under arrest or in foster care. Sister Nicoletta recounts the type of projects she has come up with and which are those that the network now runs in the different regions. “We bring all kinds of material or clothing; we do projects outside to give some inmates the chance to go out for training or work hours. And then catechesis courses in preparation for the sacraments, both in the women’s and men’s sections”. In 2014, the official 'consecration' of her vocation came about…..the destination? The Ugo Caridi prison in Catanzaro, which is an experience she later recounted in the booklet Fasciati dalla Luce [Swathed in Light] (Carello Edizioni). An experience that began with the simplest services, and then extended to the creation of volunteer groups. Creativity workshops, sewing workshops, the choir, catechesis, Mass activities... things that may be small but are of enormous importance for those inside. The prison, says the nun, is “for all of us, consecrated women, a place of encounter with people whose dignity we recognise. And I believe that the function of voluntary work is to allow change, to make a very small contribution to the rebirth of the person”.

The voluntary work of consecrated women is a role, which, however, is doubly fragile. On the one hand, there is the lack “of recognition of the special nature of their action in prison by the prison administration, which during the pandemic became an impediment to their presence”, writes Carlo Roberto Maria Redaelli, the archbishop of Gorizia and president of Caritas Italy. Moreover, adds the prelate, there is also “the lack of ecclesial recognition that creates serious problems”. Radaelli gives a typical example that of the takeover of one consecrated woman by another, destined for a different post. “If the presence of the consecrated woman within a precise pastoral project is not foreseen, it is easy for the action of the consecrated woman being transferred to be interpreted as a personal choice, which does not commit the Institute or the association to which she belongs, nor the diocese, to provide a replacement. Consequently, it is easy for the consecrated woman not to be replaced, with serious damage to pastoral activities within the prison”. One way of overcoming these difficulties, with which Sister Nicoletta also agrees, could be similar to the one pursued “with a certain effectiveness for healthcare facilities and which has already been the subject of reflection for some time in the prison pastoral context, this being the establishment of a “chaplaincy”. In a prison chaplaincy, without in any way detracting from the ultimate responsibility of the chaplain priest, the presence and action of deacons and consecrated persons, as well as lay collaborators, could find a recognised place”.

It is also a way to apply unity to the Catholic world’s interventions, which are fragmented and at risk of overlapping. Caritas Italy reasoned about this a couple of years ago, and the inspectorate is working on the issue of chaplaincies. Sister Nicoletta, who as coordinator of the service of the religious sisters participates in the consultative of the inspectorate, is ready to make her contribution.

A Journalist with the St Paul's Magazines “Credere” and “Jesus”