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Priests reflect on spiritual work with inmates

Rebecca O'Neil | Thursday, December 5, 2013

During Tuesday’s Symposium on Women’s Incarceration at Saint Mary’s, two priests who have served as prison chaplains shared their experiences working with inmates.

Fr, Jim Bracke and Fr. Tom McNally closed the day-long event by offering a spiritual perspective on the “crisis of incarceration” – male or female, convicted or not convicted – and called attendees to action.

Bracke said he sees the inmates as his brothers. He said he adopted this term of endearment after realizing many of the former offenders were like him: human.

The value of interpersonal relationships with the incarcerated became especially apparent to him after he met David, a drug addict in the recovery program of Westville Correctional Facility, he said.

“It meant so much to have someone on the outside come in,” Bracke said. “Not that I was anything, but just being a servant of the Lord, just being there was encouraging.”

After engaging in weekly meetings with Bracke, David wanted to be baptized, Bracke said. His therapeutic community witnessed as he was welcomed into the Catholic faith last spring, he said, and David was confirmed in November, Bracke said.

“All this really began by me just being there,” Bracke said. “Yes, okay, I work for and represent the Church and faith and am very happy to do that, but I’ve found that they just want someone to talk to, someone they can trust, that will not judge them.”

McNally, who has served as Bracke’s mentor for the past 33 years of his priesthood, said he supports the Catholic Church’s stance on eradicating capital punishment.

“I’ve been with three different men when they were executed,” McNally said. “How do you walk with them? How do you walk with them in the weeks prior [to] their execution? How do you walk with them on the night that they are executed?”

McNally said his first encounter with a man sentenced to death occurred just hours before the inmate’s execution. The inmate’s presence, along with an open ear and heart, granted the man solace, he said.

Bracke said he learned the relationship between prison ministers and prisoners is often give-and-take when he worked with Darrel, a craftsman in one of the prisons Bracke worked.

“It was an incredible awakening for me to see talent, talent that unfortunately can’t be shared beyond the prison walls,” Bracke said.

Bracke said it was challenging for Darrel, a father of five, to miss his family in general, but also their birthdays, weddings and funerals.

“He felt a strong sense of guilt. As humans, we search for forgiveness and feeling,” Bracke said. “It was such a privilege to walk with Darrel. He was the picture of redemption.”

Bracke said it is the Church’s responsibility to step in and help inmates in the same situation as Darrel.

“It’s an overwhelming area to tackle and I think we’ve kind of been paralyzed,” he said. “I hope this season of Advent for all of us really get fire under the leaders. We need the Church – churches, of all faiths – to really start coming together. It’s all about God and having the grace of the Holy Spirit to work through this.”

Contact Rebecca O’Neil at roneil01@saintmarys.edu