Würzburg 2023: Introduction

Doris Schäfer

Doris Schaefer
Doris Schäfer

Dear friends, dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to welcome you here in Würzburg. Würzburg is located in the heart of Germany. It was here, after the Second Vatican Council, 50 years ago, that the Catholic Church of Germany came together for a Synod to reflect on the meaning of the Council, on the hope it re-awakened, and on the enthusiasm it had also generated in the cold North.

ICCPPC European Meeting 2023

Today, the ICCPPC, the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care, gathers here people who are involved in prison pastoral care or who are interested in and love the prisoners. We want to get into conversation and look for ways that have more humanity as their objective. At the same time, they should be ways that let us newly understand the Word of God and transform us. This could be called resocialisation, which is not only needed by prisoners. When it concerns the people of God, we too are always in need of resocialisation.

I am very happy to see all of you here, whether in presence or on Zoom. We are women and men, priests, deacons and lay people, full-time workers and volunteers, from different churches and countries in Europe. Many of us will introduce themselves later and will only then be greeted by name. I would like to emphasise the presence of volunteers who provide a precious service in the Würzburg Prison. I am also pleased that Kerstin Celina's office is represented. She is a member of the regional Bavarian parliament for the Green Party in Würzburg and a member of the prison advisory board of the Würzburg correctional facility. A special guest for me is Robert Hutter, who was the director of Würzburg Prison until a year ago.

For Jesus, the prisoners belong to the poor who are his privileged friends

Afterwards, Sister Petra from Brazil will remind us that a large part of God's people lives in other continents. However, in order to make the heart of this special people beat, we must let speak through us today those whom we carry in our hearts and make them become alive: These are the prisoners entrusted to our care. Among them are many poor and disadvantaged. And even if before their imprisonment they belonged to the privileged in our societies, through their imprisonment they become the needy with whom Jesus identifies in their weakness, no matter how bad their deed may have been. The Würzburg Synod referred very clearly to the poor in its final text, which has the beautiful title 'Our Hope' - even though it is the text of a rich church that finds it difficult to love the poor. It says: 'For they are the privileged ones with Jesus, they must also be the privileged ones in his Church.' I would like to cite this concluding text a few times because it is still relevant and continues to be a challenge for the Church in Europe. I would like to mention that three great German theologians participated in the Synod of that time: Karl Rahner, Josef Ratzinger and Johann Baptist Metz. They have left a great patrimony not only to the German Church. Pope Francis has taken up this patrimony and carried it forward. He, too, exhorts us again and again not to segregate the poor and the weak, but to bring them into the midst of the Church.

The ICCPPC in Europe needs a new "explosive force of lived hope"

In Europe, there is a clear sense that the Church needs to renew itself. This is equally true for the ICCPPC as part of the Catholic Church. I think Brian will speak about this later. Recently the World Board met to start again after the time of the pandemic. In Europe we have also set a new course. Ryan continues as Secretary General of the ICCPPC and as such is doing an important job. He is still available to me, as the new European representative, for support and exchange of ideas, for which I am very grateful. I think we have found a good division of tasks this way. Nevertheless, there is still a lot to be done. Most of us know the difficulties and obstacles. There is a lack of money, a lack of time, the language is a barrier. There is also a lack of passion, perhaps because we succumb too easily to the resignation of our times. We resign ourselves to the war in Europe, to diminishing resources, the churches are losing members and influence.

In these two days we want to talk about the meaning and the future of prison chaplaincy and the ICCPPC. We could analyse the last years, our disappointments, our discouragement, as well as some excuses. But we are not here for ourselves. Not only priests, but all of us have a vocation that we must cultivate. The final text of the Würzburg Synod says: 'The world does not need its hopelessness to be doubled by religion - i.e. by us, by the ICCPPC, by pastoral workers - but it needs and seeks ... the counterweight, the explosive power of lived hope.'

That this explosive power is urgently needed is evident among the poor. In prison it is obvious. How much desperation there is, because one cannot bear one's own failure, because one does not know how to go on, because the family breaks up because of the separation, because others have to share the burden of one's own guilt. For many, the prison door later becomes a revolving door because they can no longer gain a foothold outside in society, because they cannot get away from drugs, because they feel abandoned. And yet there is also so much hope among the prisoners, hope against all hope! I often hear sentences like the following: In my life so far I have been disappointed by everyone, but God has never disappointed me. Everyone deserves a second chance. And: When I am free again, everything will change.

Taking prisoners' hope for a new chance seriously

Staff members and also we chaplains are quick to smile at such a statement or to dismiss it with a wave of the hand. But for most prisoners this is not just some good New Year's resolution that no longer applies the next day. Even if some later slip back into the old ways, they really mean it, they believe in a conversion, they hope for their second chance, they deeply hope that they can improve. At the moment, a woman has come back to Würzburg Prison who celebrated her first communion there when she was first imprisoned and who really made a lot of effort for her family after her release and was on a good path. I had frequent contact with her. But at some point, everything became too difficult. Her children were taken away from her, her husband left her, she lost her flat. After the first few weeks in prison, she said: 'Actually, I'm glad I'm back here. The last weeks outside were very difficult. I was difficult. I was no longer myself. I hope I can recover and then become the person I was when I was last released.' She is serious about this. After all, she cannot afford to give up this hope.

Prisoners can contribute to the renewal of the Church

The Würzburg Synod says: 'That is why everyone must actually be involved and participate in the living renewal of our Church.' This 'everyone' includes the prisoners. They must and want to be involved. We are here to understand this better together. But our task is also to better communicate this understanding to the church. Those who do not consider the prisoners as part of their church, who do not expect anything from them for the renewal of the church and the churches, waste valuable resources and risk not involving Jesus either, who identifies with them.

Cooperation with all is needed

When we speak of 'everyone', this also calls us to a more intensive ecumenical cooperation with other churches and religious communities. That is why I am glad that the IPCA President is here to explore possibilities of cooperation with us.

By 'everyone' I absolutely mean the many volunteers, too, who visit prisoners and work on their behalf. In Brazil, for example, only volunteers work in prison chaplaincy. The situation is similar in Latvia. Volunteers are not only a cheap substitute where full-time staff cannot be paid. They have a power of their own. The voluntary nature of their commitment makes them spread joy and gives them drive. Voluntariness is also worth a lot to the prisoners. When I point out at the annual Christmas party with the imprisoned women in Würzburg that all those who have come from outside want to celebrate Christmas with them voluntarily, that I too am not paid for my service on that day, the women feel honoured and happy because they can feel that it is a commitment with heart and is personal to them.

Thanks to the Community of Sant'Egidio

Only when we work together can Jesus be experienced as alive. This is also evident in this meeting. Without the help of the Community of Sant'Egidio it would not have been possible. Personally, I have grown up in and with this community since my years of study and have thus learned to love the poor, to understand the world better with them and to explore the message of the Bible in friendship with them. My passion for the prisoners can only be explained in this way. And you need it if you want to be the European representative of the ICCPPC in addition to your full-time job in prison. Without the material help of Sant'Egidio and the active help of many of my friends, some of whom are translating for free and have taken care of many things in the background, the meeting would not be possible.

This also leads to a request for future meetings. I think we must find new ways of working together, but also help each other. Not: what can I expect from ICCPPC, but: where can I help and make a small contribution should be our interest.

What the meeting is about

This meeting here should be about understanding the challenges we face in prisons as part of the challenges of our global world. We will hear about poverty, the impact of the pandemic, lack of education in prison, war and migration. It cannot be about finding a solution to all these global issues and challenges. It is already an important step to formulate questions, to know them from each other and to share them. And then it is about touching the roots of our faith. That is why I am looking forward to tomorrow's lecture by Marco Gnavi from Rome. In order to keep finding answers step by step and to be able to design life around us, we need to be in touch with our spiritual sources as much as with the sisters and brothers next to us.

Prayer for prisoners and staff

Tonight, we will pray for deceased prisoners and staff. Some of them have no one to remember them. Some of them have passed away because of despair. The deceased, not only the saints and martyrs among them, are also needed for the renewal of the Church. Remembering them is important. I quote the Würzburg Synod: ... 'to forget and suppress this question of the life of the dead is profoundly inhumane. For it means ... surrendering ourselves to the senselessness of these sufferings without contradiction.'

Hopeful wish for the meeting

Suffering is a great evil. Where it is perceived as meaningless, it becomes unbearable. Jesus shows us how to deal with it. He did not eradicate suffering, he did not condemn the guilty, but neither did he trivialise guilt. He took the guilt upon himself and made the suffering his own. I quote the texts of the Würzburg Synod for the last time: 'Only when our hope hopes for others, when it takes on the form and movement of love and communion, does it cease to be small and fearful and to reflect our egoism without any promises.'

May our meeting absorb the movement of fraternal love and communion, so that our hope may become great and courageous, promisingly reflecting friendship and solidarity, which are needed so that we can become better and improve the world.