There are 17 jails and prisons within the Arlington Diocese
filled with men and women paying their debt to society. Some stay behind bars
for a couple of months, while others are there for years. For Catholics, this
means limited access to the sacraments. For years, the diocese has taken to
heart the corporal work of mercy to visit the imprisoned.
Bill Hall, Catholic Charities prison ministry coordinator, has
helped parishes care for their incarcerated flock for the past five years.
"We minister to them because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ." Deacon James R. Van de Voorde
“The people who are in the
jails are just as much a part of the parish,” said Hall. “We try to bring
(them) the sacraments and the word of God.”
The presence of the church in jail can make all the difference to
an inmate on the brink of losing his or her faith. Volunteers share stories of
inmates coming to them after being confronted with questions about their faith
by fellow inmates. As a result, many Catholics and Christians might flock to
the ministry’s religious education classes to find answers and peace.
One of the diocese’s largest prison ministries is at All Saints
Church in Manassas. The group is led by Deacon James R. Van de Voorde who was
asked to help distribute communion to the residents of the Prince
William–Manassas Regional Adult Detention Center, one of the area’s largest
facilities with more than 900 inmates.
“We do 13 religious education and communion services a week,”
said Deacon Van de Voorde. Early on, he began to notice that many non-Catholics
would attend their events.
“You realize that they like coming to a Catholic service. I think
it makes them feel regular again,” he said.
Although All Saint’s ministry is large — with more than 35 members who see an average
of 75 inmates each week — it is still a challenge to serve such a large
community. Since no more than 50 prisoners are allowed to gather in the same
room, the parish has to coordinate more visits with smaller groups. This brings
them to the biggest challenge in prison ministry — finding volunteers. The
thought of going into prison is not appealing for some and the process of
gaining entry can take a couple of months with background checks and training.
Both Hall and Deacon Van de Voorde agree that jumping through the hoops is
worth it in the end.
“It is just like having a
hospital in our parish,” said Deacon Van de Voorde. “We minister to them
because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.” He hopes the ministry
will continue to expand, and that one day they will work on transitioning the
inmates back into regular parish life.