From 8-9 May 2023, a meeting of Catholic prison chaplains from Europe took place in Würzburg. This meeting was organised by Doris Schäfer, the European representative of the ICCPPC (International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care), a worldwide association of Catholic prison chaplains.
It took place in the rooms and with logistical support of the Community of Sant'Egidio in Würzburg. The meeting was also financially supported by the Katholische Gefängnisseelsorge in Deutschland e.V. (Catholic Prison Chaplaincy in Germany) and by Renovabis, which paid part of the expenses of the Eastern European participants.
The participants came from 10 European countries. Also present were the President of the ICCPPC, Brian Gowens from Scotland, the President of IPCA (International Prison Chaplains Association), David Buick from France, and the President of the Kath. Gefängnisseelsorge in Deutschland e.V., Andreas Bär, as well as Luis Okulik, who is Secretary of the Commission for Social Pastoral Care in the CCEE, the Council of European Bishops' Conferences. They all spoke at the beginning of the event. The greetings were supplemented by a written greeting from Ministerialdirigent Peter Holzner, Head of the Department of Corrections in the Bavarian State Ministry of Justice, and on the following day by a greeting from Würzburg Auxiliary Bishop Ulrich Boom, who has been coming to the Würzburg Prison from time to time for church services and confession, but regularly for a Bible discussion group.
The words of welcome were preceded by introductory words from the ICCPPC's European representative, Doris Schäfer. After a long break due to the pandemic and the change of responsibilities in Europe, she was glad that finally a meeting could take place again. She quoted several times the final document of the Würzburg Synod of 1975, entitled 'Our Hope'. By quoting this text, she wanted to encourage the participants to feel again 'the explosive power of lived hope' in these days and to carry it into the ICCPPC, into the church and into the prisons.
First, the representatives of the individual countries briefly reported on their situations, which are very different.
In Austria, a new era is just beginning with the retirement of the long-time president, Dr Christian Kuhn, in which it is necessary to reorganise and realign.
In Switzerland, the first assisted suicide behind prison walls took place on 28 February 2023. Prison chaplaincy there is organised in an ecumenical association (www.gefaengnisseelsorge.ch/) and has its own publishing house for publications in the field of prison chaplaincy (https://www.gefaengnisseelsorge.ch/de/publikationen/ or www.seelsorgeundstrafvollzug.ch/).
The representative from Belarus recalled that prison chaplaincy could only be rebuilt in 1994, after the serious changes in Eastern Europe. He invited everyone to a jubilee event of the Orthodox prison chaplaincy in Minsk in May 2024.
From Ukraine, the consequences of the war on prisons, prisoners and prison chaplaincy were reported.
Other Eastern European representatives made it clear that prison chaplaincy does not have a long tradition in their countries either and that in their local churches social issues are often not the focus of pastoral care in their dioceses. That is why they often do not receive any tangible support. One used the comparison with 'lone wolves'.
In Latvia, the long-time representative had to end his service as a prison chaplain and the colleague from Prague has also said goodbye, wanting to retire. It will not be easy to find a replacement, especially as foreign language skills are always the first hurdle.
The representative from Malta, on the other hand, would have to learn 85 languages to be able to converse with all 550 prisoners of his country, thus making clear how the European issue of migration is particularly condensed on this Mediterranean island.
The theme of the event was: Looking together behind and in front of the walls of Europe's prisons. It dealt with issues that affect everyone in Europe and that are often concentrated in a special way behind prison walls: Poverty, lack of education, the impact of Corona, war and migration. Sister Petra Pfaller, the national person responsible for Catholic prison chaplaincy in Brazil, who had joined us from Sao Paolo, reported on the great poverty of many prisoners in Brazil. Stefania Tallei, who regularly visits prisoners in Italian prisons on a voluntary basis with the Community of Sant'Egidio, spoke about the importance of educational measures in prison. Prof. em Frieder Dünkel, who held the chair of criminology at the University of Greifswald until his retirement, also joined in and spoke about the effects of Covid-19 in various countries in Europe. Adriana Porowska, a young Polish politician who volunteers to care for the homeless in Warsaw and to take in refugees from Ukraine, and Sister Gabi Sari with Vivien Vadasi from a civil organisation that does similar work in Hungary, reminded the audience that Europe's prisons are populated by migrants.
On the second morning, a talk by Don Marco Gnavi, a priest of the Community of Sant'Egidio, provided a spiritual focus. Marco Gnavi makes regular visits to a prison in the south of Rome where former mafia members who have collaborated with the justice system are imprisoned. He tried to convey Jesus' view of prisoners to the auditorium in order to encourage pastoral workers, who are confronted daily with the somewhat different view of the judiciary and the penitentiary, to clarify their own perspective. This view was complemented by a short contribution from Sister Anne Lécu, a French prison doctor, and a former prisoner of the Würzburg correctional institution who was released a few months ago, who spoke about the importance of prison chaplaincy from his point of view.
The evening before, the participants of the event had taken part in a prayer of the Community of Sant'Egidio of Würzburg, which was also attended by staff of the Wérzburg Prison, former prisoners and staff of organisations that care for prisoners or those released from prison. Prayers were said for the prisoners as well as for the staff, especially for those who have died in prison or in the line of duty in recent years. After the intercessions, each participant was allowed to come forward and light a candle on a candelabra placed at the side of the altar.
The event was concluded with a guided tour of the Würzburg Prison, during which the deputy warden and some staff members explained their work and answered questions. With a prayer by Pope Paul VI, which he had prayed with prisoners during a prison visit, everyone was released back into freedom at the end.