Roman Catholic Prison Ministry

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THE ROMAN CATHOLIC Prison Ministry (RCPM) was formally set up by Fathers Brian Doro (an Australian priest), Thomas O'Neill, SJ and Sister Gerard Fernandez, rgs in 1977. Today, there are 11 priests and some 80 volunteers engaged in the ministry.

The priests serving as chaplains in the Prisons Ministry are: Anthony Hutjes, Tom Curran, Angel Luciano, David Garcia, Gregoire van Giang, Timothy Yeo, J. J. Fenelon, Augustine Joseph, Adrian Yeo, Paul Staes; and Paul Pang, who is the principal chaplain and Sister Gerard its coordinator. Sister Gerard is known by many in and out of prison as "Prison Sister" for her ministry to prisoners.

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The 80 volunteers, most of whom hold full-time jobs, visit the prisoners in 13 institutions for up to a total of 30 sessions a week. The chaplains celebrate Mass once a month in each of the 13 institutions.

Different institutions have different sessions because certain categories of prisoners cannot come on weekdays (for the sessions). "Usually, sessions include praise and worship by the prisoners together before they break into groups for sharing on the Gospel," said Jimmy Yuen, an Exco member of the RCPM.

Each session may be attended by 30 to 40 inmates and lasts about one- nd-a-half hours to two hours. Communion services for Catholics are held on Saturday as are novena devotions, which are well attended by both  non-Catholics and Catholics.

In addition, RCPM provides individual counselling in some prisons and runs several courses including Catholic Faith Exploration (CaFÉ) and Little

Rock Scripture Studies, RCIA journeys with the prisoners and colour therapy through painting.

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Volunteers

The volunteers ministering to the prisoners have been rewarded too. Sharen Goh joined the ministry in 1997 "by chance", when she was asked by her grandaunt, who was a ministry member, to drive her to Changi Women Prison.

"Immediately after my first visit, I experienced the privilege of living out Jesus' message that 'when I was in prison, you came to visit me'. Visiting the prison is a very humbling experience," she said. "I learnt that there is really no difference between me and the sister-in-Christ that I visited. Every one of us is a beloved child of God."

There are times when serving in the ministry has made her feel somewhat helpless though. "Many of them come from difficult family circumstances, and many times, it is difficult to have them understand that the only support I can give are my prayers and listening ear," she shared.

Despite and, perhaps, because of this, Sharen had hoped to be a source of encouragement to the prisoners but realizes that she has come away being encouraged by them instead. "The joy they express, even though they are behind bars, is an inspiration that strengthens and enables me to keep visiting," she said of what keeps her going in the RCPM.

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Katherine Dass, the main coordinator of the Sunday groups, speaks of the same joy. "It gives me joy to be able to share the word of God with the inmates and to also let them know that God loves and embraces them all," she said.

Like Sharen, Katherine too, feels a strong impulse to be there for the prisoners. "They look for me to share their thoughts and feelings with and when I am unable to visit them, they get disappointed and sad." She feels that disappointing them is "the hardest thing to deal with" because the prisoners, deemed as "outcasts" by society, "are also yearning to be loved and understood".

This is also why Katherine wants to urge the RCPM members to continue to be "committed instruments of God to reach out and bring joy and happiness into the lives of these prisoners".

Alphonso Ortega, now a retired member of the RCPM, recalls his experience as something very "fulfilling" although he admits that not all prisoners he and the other volunteers ministered to, attended the sessions with a sincerity to learn about Christ.

Some people join the sessions only during festive occasions like the Christmas season, when there are goodies available, he shared. But Alphonso has learnt that it is his duty as a Catholic to minister to them regardless of their motives.

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Jimmy Yuen feels that the mission of the RCPM is to make Jesus known and loved by all too and to bring stray or lost Catholics back to Christ.

"Not all of them are from dysfunctional families or lack education," he said. "There are also bankers and teachers, for example, in the prisons. They are not there because they had nothing and had to resort to [crime] but they lacked a sense of God in their lives."

This is where he hopes to have more "spirit-filled volunteers bring Jesus to the prisons to nurture the prisoners spiritually. He said that prison officers have indicated that many offenders have changed and successfully reintegrated into society with the help of a strong faith. This would not have been achieved if the volunteers and priests did not come to minister to them while they were in prison.

Those interested to be volunteers in the RCPM may visit www.prison-volunteers.gov.sg.

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