"I was in prison and you visited me…"

A deacon in Atlanta is taking those words of Jesus to heart — and he’s living them as part of a vital and vibrant ministry.

From the Georgia Bulletin:

The Prison and Jail Ministry of the Atlanta Archdiocese aims to make stronger links between parishioners and Catholics behind bars.Inmates should have a sacramental presence in their lives, said Deacon Richard Tolcher, a retired federal chaplain who is now the ministry leader.

Prisoners can at times wait a month between Masses or to participate in Bible study so he would like to train more people to reach out to men and women behind bars.

“My ministry is based on Scripture: Matthew 25,” Deacon Tolcher said. “Very clearly, Jesus says to visit the prisons. It really is a command. He doesn’t suggest. He doesn’t say wait until you retire. He says, do it now.”

The ministry receives $150,000 from the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal to fund the program. The ministry has a staff of three: Deacon Tolcher, whose position is part time, and two full-time priests, Fathers Yuen Caballejo and John Fallon, to visit the nearly two-dozen state and county prison facilities in the archdiocese. The program supports RCIA programs behind bars, along with providing religious literature and catechisms.

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama are very supportive of the program, visiting inmates on a regular basis and celebrating Mass.

The Prison and Jail Ministry program works because of the many volunteers who support it, but Deacon Tolcher would like to have more people involved in local and city jails that don’t already have a Catholic presence.

These are small facilities that people may not be aware of, but inside are prisoners waiting to be visited and receive the sacraments, he said.

Deacon Tolcher was ordained a permanent deacon in 1987, and as a paid chaplain in the federal prison system he started a Catholic ministry at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and called it the St. Dismas Chapel for the “good thief” who hung on the cross next to Jesus. After retirement, he applied for the position of prison ministry coordinator of the archdiocese, a part-time post. He said the goal for the Catholic jail ministry is to share the faith with others and follow the Gospel mandate.

However, winning converts is not the purpose of the ministry. Rather, it is to serve the inmates, not to see them as potential recruits to the church, Deacon Tolcher said. The service can be for people who aren’t members of the church and who simply want a direction in life.

Bless him, and all who do this important work.  Check out the rest of the story.

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2 responses to “"I was in prison and you visited me…"”

  1. Deacon Greg, thanks for this chance to get beyond the controversies and finger-pointing in the Church today and remind ourselves what living the gospel really means in practice. I’m proud to know several of these men who are making prison ministry flourish in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Their diaconal ministry sets a great example for every Catholic who feels the call to serve our brothers and sisters on the margins of society.

    In his final paper for my course last year, one of our candidates was talking about opportunities for service after ordination. “We have no shortage of jails,” he commented wryly. I told the men they should embroider that on their dalmatics to keep them always mindful of where Christ is to be found.

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