When I began to teach in prison, I expected the chaplains to be a tough sort, standing up for the inmates. In my opinion, this kind of moral stance was in the best tradition of the Catholic religion. And the men and women I admired most in the Protestant and Jewish faiths were of the same persuasion.

I expected prison chaplains to follow the quote of the prophet Isaiah. This is what Isaiah expected the messiah to be:

I have appointed you

to open the eyes of the blind,

to free captives from prison

and those who live in darkness from the dungeon.  (Chapter 42, 6)

In no time, I was pretty disappointed.

An inmate told me about the previous Sunday’s sermon. “The Bible teaches us to obey those in charge of us and to treat them with reverence. Don’t question them, do what they tell you.”

With my education in the Catholic seminary and five years as a Catholic priest, I could hold my own in a discussion of the Bible and what it meant to be a Christian. But the opportunity never came up. Most of the chaplains I met, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and other, were of the sort that identified with the obedience quote above. That’s what they preached.

Nobody gave the inmates even a hint that something could be wrong with the system they were imprisoned in. I know prisoners felt things, that this was not ‘corrections,’ but punishment, that often guards and staff were unjust, and that what they experienced in their everyday lives could hardly be called ‘living religion.’

Until I met Jerry.

Jerry was the Catholic chaplain in a high medium prison of about three hundred inmates. He was not out on the barricades yelling at the administration, he was in his office counseling anybody who came to him. Even though the prison system paid his salary, he was not afraid to question their decisions. Like me, he’d been through a long seminary education, but he left just before ordination and soon married. I figured he would play along with the administration because he wanted to keep his job, but not Jerry. Every month one of the chaplains gave a talk to the guards. The usual arrangement was that chaplain would give a very short ‘sleeper sermon’ and let the guards go. Not Jerry. When he heard of a group of guards making fun of a mentally challenged inmate, he brought it up in his sermon.

If somebody asked him to stay a half hour or an hour after his time in the office, no problem. He would, even though he wasn’t paid for any time after his office hours.

One of the prisons couldn’t get a Catholic chaplain, so Jerry went on his own time one day a week to help them out.

In my opinion, Jerry fulfilled that quote of Isaiah.

  1. Chris Vogel says:

    It is in the nature of religion that what you get as chaplain (not just in prisons, but also in the military, police and other similar services) varies enormously. No doubt, though that, at least occasionally, one arrives, and even survives, who is worth seeing. Probably this why CSC has fired all of the chaplains from other religions (the Harper government’s Christian conservative base would have become hysterical if they had let the Christians go and, in any case, the Minster at the time–Vic Toews–styled himself a conservative christian).

  2. jcommittedk says:

    It takes a person who is sure of themselves to stand up to the system like Jerry did. We certainly need more like Jerry and more like you!

    • Ed Griffin says:

      Thanks, Joanne. Once there was a vacancy for a Catholic chaplain in the system. I toyed with the idea of applying, but my wife objected. Her view of me did not include my previous work as a priest and she wanted to keep it that way. I respected her opinion and didn’t try for the job.

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