This issue of Women Church World features the stories and the experiences of women who are active within prisons with their social commitment and voluntary work, or moved to be so with faith. The choice of this topic coincides with the national conference Being Women In Prison organized by the Union of Major Superiors of Italy (USMI), and their coordination of consecrated, religious and lay women volunteers in prisons project.
A prison is a place of punishment that is full of problems and pain. For the Church, a prison is also a “theological” place – “I was in prison and you came to me”, from the Gospel according to Matthew - and it is an area that historically, between the highs and lows, has played a role in reform. It was at the urging of Pope Innocent X that the Carcere novo [New jail] was founded in the 17th century. These prisons combined justice, clemency and “a safer and more humane custody of the guilty”, as we read above the door of the building in the heart of Rome that today houses the National Anti-Mafia Directorate.
The golden thread running through the testimonies from peoples in different Countries, which you will read about here, is the commitment to a renewed prison ministry, in step with the problematic and turbulent times we are living in and with the vocations crisis within the Church.
Daniela De Robert, a journalist who has been doing voluntary work in a Roman prison for 30 years and is a member of the body that monitors respect for the rights of prisoners in Italy, says that “the Church too must go back to being a community capable of existing beyond walls, beyond separations, and beyond fears. To visit a prisoner means to remember him or her, as if we were also prisoners with them”.
From the USA, Karen Clifton, the executive coordinator and founder of the Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition, draws our attention to the problem of accompaniment. She tells us, “The need for this ministry is vast, while the ministers are too few”. Continuing, she wonders, “How could the Catholic Church in the United States regain its missionary zeal to spread the Gospel to the marginalised, as Pope Francis has invited us to do?” When Ilaria Buonriposi, a Combonian missionary and social worker who has worked in prisons in Spain, Peru, and now the United States, met the Tupac Amaru guerrillas in Lima, they spoke of love. From the women she met, she learnt that to be “imprisoned is not a noun, but an adjective: it does not define the essence of the person, but a situation that this person experiences”.