The World Meeting of Families showed that Catholic families still have deeply personal challenges for which they look to the Church for help, whether it’s raising a special needs child or coping with the fallout of a divorce.
That was the spirit of a panel session devoted to the impact of imprisonment on families, which was of intense concern to those Catholics most directly caught up in the hardships of having a loved one behind bars.
Sister Breda Coman, who serves as a chaplain at Ireland’s Midlands Prison, surveyed the various ways families are affected when a loved one is incarcerated.
“The impact is different for every family,” she said. “Some live in dread and shock, for some it’s not a new experience, and for others it’s actually a welcome relief.” For everyone, however, it takes a toll.
“Prison is tough on the relatives,” she said. “The loss of someone you love is always heartbreaking, but in this case there are no grieving rituals and the pain isn’t regarded as legitimate in the same way as other losses.”
Ruth Comerford, a chaplain at Ireland’s Mountjoy Prison, said often the initial challenges tend to be concrete.
“If it’s the first time a member of their family has been in, they don’t know where the first point of contact is. They don’t know how to book visits, they don’t know what prisoners are allowed to have, they don’t know how to go about handling property and money, so they’re dealing with very basic difficulties.”
“They’re unsure of how to transport themselves to the prison, or how to organize child care,” and family members often feel they’re being penalized too even though they’ve done nothing wrong.
“These families are often harassed by their neighbors, they get anonymous threatening phone calls, their doors and windows are broken, and they get ugly notes in their mailbox,” she said.
Sinead McNeela, a chaplain at the female prison in Ireland, said the emotional burden is also often steep for families. “It’s the whole idea of shame … ‘Oh my God, my wife, daughter, husband, son, whatever, is in prison’,” she said. “People think the worst of inmates who are in custody, and the shame and embarrassment that brings on families is a massive issue.”
She also said that “Pope Francis is an inspiration,” Comerford said. “The fact that he makes a point of visiting prisons in the countries he visits is great, and his message of love and justice is one we should all listen to.”
“I think it’s such a hopeful message. I mean, we’re all human beings, we’re all equal, Yes, people make mistakes, but we’re all equal,” she said.
Auxiliary Bishop Eamonn Walsh of Dublin, who was a prison chaplain himself for 13 years, added a final thought – that inmates don’t just need to learn, but they also have much to teach.
Walsh said, he also learned how to walk with people rather than judging them. “If we stop walking with one another, then we become a judgmental society. We become a society that’s only interested in seeing heads roll, and we never stand in the shoes of the other person,” he said.