Bishop Sklba is board president
After sending surveys to prison chaplains across the United States, a common thread emerged. A board was formed with Bishop Richard J. Sklba as president, U.S. Court of Appeals circuit judge Diane S. Sykes as vice president, and various prominent members. The next 10 years would be spent forming a ministry to help inmates, chaplains and victims.
According to its mission, “Dismas Ministry, in the spirit of Jesus who was both convict and victim, is committed to carrying on this special outreach of hope inaugurated by Jesus, by serving those convicted of crime and advocating for those victimized by crime.”
The ministry strives for restorative justice, and encourages the spiritual transformation of inmates in the hope that this will have a positive effect on everyone affected by crime – offenders and victims, as well as the community.
“The church is a vast treasury of prayer and prayer resources,” Zeilinger explained, mentioning contemplative and centering prayers that are popular with Catholics. “A lot of people – and this would include Catholics in the mainstream – they’re not always aware of how much the church has in its tradition, and what it has to offer. We really wanted inmates to know that, the richness of the Catholic faith and its tradition.”
When requested by prison chaplains for their Catholic inmates, Dismas Ministry distributes free Scripture and faith resources, including Bibles, a unique prayer book for and by inmates, and faith study materials intended to support the faith-based rehabilitation of inmates. A goal is to provide the foundation for a healthy spiritual life that will serve them whether they remain behind bars or are eventually released.
“It tells them how to attend Mass, how to go to confession, how to pray the rosary, how to pray the stations, all of those different things,” Zeilinger explained about the material, which also includes a section on saints who also were incarcerated during their life.
“It’s wonderful stories of saints who you wouldn’t even imagine … being incarcerated for a period of time in their lives,” he said, naming St. Francis of Assisi, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and St. Peter and St. Paul. “Those are very fascinating stories for the men and women, and they really appreciate that there were these wonderful friends of God who had that prison experience.”
10 years with
Dismas Ministry marks its 10 years of service as a national Catholic prison ministry with a Mass at St. John Cathedral on Sept. 12 at 8 a.m. Bishop Richard J. Sklba, board president, will preside, with board members, Capuchin Fr. Al Veik and Deacon Richard Niggemmann also present.
Ministry strives for restorative justice
According to Bishop Sklba, choosing the kind of material inmates could relate to took some time.
“One of the issues is not only should it be good, solid Catholic material, not only should it be aimed at an educational literacy level that is going to be helpful, but it should be targeted for inmates,” he explained in an interview with your Catholic Herald. “The illustrations, the materials, should have a special appeal and be competitive with other things published elsewhere by publishers.”
Some prayers were specifically written for the inmates, including for when they are standing in line, and for the healing of their victims.
Dismas Ministry supplies Catholic resources to more than 700 prisons in 43 states and 116 dioceses. In addition to prayer books and Bibles, it focuses on restorative justice and how a perpetrator can help heal the lives of his or her victims.
“It’s like a beginning of an idea – the seed of an idea – and it just keeps growing and growing, that we have to take a look at how we, as a society, approach criminal justice,” Zeilinger explained. “We have always had this idea that a crime is against the state, and the state punishes. So, there has been a heavy emphasis traditionally on punishing the criminal, (but) the biblical background of our Judeo-Christian society has a wider, richer interpretation of what justice means, and it has strong Biblical roots. …restorative justice will focus and make a center of its concern, first of all, the victim, and how you make the victim experience healing and justice.”
A lot of times, the healing must involve the perpetrator, he added.
“You have community witnesses, you have victims, and then you have the inmates, all gathering together in circles, and there’s a whole format to how that develops over a period of one to two to three days, where all of these individuals gather to share, and they begin to heal,” he explained about the Restorative Justice Initiative meetings held at prisons with facilitator Janine Geske of Marquette University.
“It’s a really wonderful system, and I think it just moves away from the whole thing I think of purely punitive, which I think our society is still tending to be stuck in. What we call justice really ends up being just punishment, and there’s no restoration coming out, or healing,” he added.
‘We always promise them our prayers’
The Dismas Ministry isn’t just to support and help Catholic inmates, but to also let prison chaplains know that they’re not alone when they need help, according to Zeilinger.
“A lot of times, they’re the lone chaplain way out somewhere, and they’re a lot of times hungry for correspondence or for support, and we always promise them our prayers,” he said, explaining that they have the names of more than 700 chaplains in their database.
When asked why ministering to prisoners was such an important vocation for him, Bishop Sklba mentioned not only what he’s read in the Gospels, but also the learning he experiences from those he meets along the way.
“The early Christian experience of the first 200 years, when Christians were in prison and needed the support of the Christian community not imprisoned – often there were people who were incarcerated (or) preparing for martyrdom – there has been that long example tradition of caring for prisoners,” he explained. “Beyond that, the work of meeting people who really want to talk about spirituality or talk about their faith, or talk about their heartaches, is very satisfying pastoral work.”
Seeing the way some inmates change their lives is another reason why Bishop Sklba believes in the importance of prison ministry.
“This individual – who has a very serious conviction against him – has turned his cell into his monastic place,” he explained about a prisoner who joined the Camaldolese, a religious community of contemplative hermits, as an associate. “So, the pastoral involvement with people really serious about coming to grips with the reality of God and guilt and forgiveness and renewal – reconciliation – it can be very good work.”
Dismas Ministry breaks down stereotypes
Parishioners at St. Margaret Mary, Milwaukee, are involved with Dismas Ministry. Lifelong Faith Formation director Joe Nettesheim, along with six other volunteers, runs the faith study course for inmates across the United States.
“When we get requests, we send out books and then as the inmates finish each book in the faith study, there is a questionnaire – I guess it’s a test – so they have to answer questions about the material they read,” he explained. “We correct them and then send it back to them with the next book.”
While the parish has only been involved with Dismas Ministry since last November, Nettesheim had been a long-time volunteer in the ministry’s Bible study through St. William Parish, Waukesha.
“This just goes to show you the huge need of the men and women in prison, to change their lives and explore their faith,” he said in regards to how many dioceses the ministry serves. “I think that Dismas Ministry is a ministry to those who are in prison, but I think it’s also a ministry to those who are helping. It’s really beneficial for those who are part of this as well.
“It has caused us to break down some stereotypes of people who are in prison, so I just think very highly of Ron (Zeilinger) and what he and Dismas Ministry are trying to do,” he added.