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“You visited me”: Inside a Catholic prison ministry

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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 02/23/24

The works of mercy call Catholics to minister to people in prison: What does this look like in practice? Let’s take a look at Kolbe Prison Ministries.

The works of mercy call Catholics to visit and minister to people in prison, but what does this work look like in practice? 

Let’s take a look at Kolbe Prison Ministries (KPM) to see what it looks like when dedicated teams of volunteers serve people who are incarcerated.

KPM presents a three-day retreat within each prison, followed by ongoing Catholic formation. Local Catholic volunteers bring into the prisons training materials, literature, and videos, with the purpose of educating inmates about the Catholic faith and answering those who have shown an interest in learning more about the Catholic faith after attending a retreat.

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The KPM website gives the following introduction to their ministry:

This ministry has enriched and reinvigorated the spiritual lives of thousands of inmates. Many of the inmates open their hearts to the word of God and begin to make positive changes in their lives… We ask you to pray for the victims of criminal acts, for their families, for those that are locked away, for those that volunteer to visit and work within the prisons, and we ask that you pray for our ministry. Pray for the offenders that they put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ, knowing that they can be forgiven for their mistakes and live the will of the Father.

Wanting to learn more about the ins and outs of this ministry, we had the chance to hear from Kathleen McDonald Tong, a KPM volunteer and Secretary of the Board of Directors. Here is our interview.

What inspired the start of Kolbe Prison Ministries?

A group of faithful Catholic men from the Texas Hill Country, who had been involved for years in other Christian-based prison ministries, as well as Catholic ACTS retreats in the free world, realized the spiritual benefit of holding ACTS-type retreats in prisons.

The impetus to get involved in prison ministry in the first place was based primarily on Jesus’ call in Matthew 25:36 and 40: “I was in prison, and you visited me” and “… I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

We take Jesus at his word and act accordingly.

In addition, the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church are often misinterpreted or demeaned in prison, which leaves Catholic offenders confused and disoriented. KPM therefore brings Catholic ministry into prisons, according to its mission statement: “To share the agape love of Jesus Christ with the incarcerated and to teach the fullness of the truth of the Catholic Church to the incarcerated.”

How long has the program been running and in how many prisons?

Originally introduced in 2009 as “Prison ACTS,” the founders realized that some aspects of ACTS retreats were not compatible with prison regulations, so in 2015 a separate non-profit organization, Kolbe Prison Ministries, was legally incorporated.

Because the organization’s founders believe strongly in Catholic teachings, including the communion of saints and their special intercessions for us on earth, they chose St. Maximilian Kolbe to name the organization. Since we began tracking, we have held retreats in over 66 units, including 3 non-prison facilities. We anticipate this number to continue to rise as we receive more invitations to serve in new dioceses and states. Kolbe Prison Ministries is now listed in the Official Catholic Directory under the Archdiocese of San Antonio.

How many inmates have participated in retreats so far?

The initial retreat at each location is called a Mission Retreat and is entirely run by outside volunteers. After that, however, an inside team is formed from that first group of retreatants. Not including the inside teams, we average between 40-50 new retreatants at each retreat. We estimate over 15,000 inmates have participated in retreats since we began recording data.

Beyond the 3-day retreats, how else does KPM serve inmates?

After retreats, KPM volunteers provide ongoing catechesis through Bible studies, RCIA and more. That is where Ascension Press comes in. 

About two years ago, Ascension generously donated to KPM nearly $338,000 worth of Bible study materials related to Ascension’s flagship Bible study: The Bible Timeline: The Story of Salvation, a 24-session program presented by Jeff Cavins. Those special resources have been disseminated to the various affiliate Core Teams throughout Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Oklahoma. 

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Ascension Press’ donation of Bible Timeline materials arrives at Kolbe Prison Ministries.

The Ascension donation is so important to our brothers-in-white and sisters-in-white. [KPM volunteers refer to the inmates as “brothers-in-white” and “sisters-in-white.”]

Bible studies using The Bible Timeline materials are underway in many prisons with great success. The reach of this study and the impact that it makes on the inmates’ lives have far-reaching implications and benefits. Thank you, Ascension Press! (You can read an inmate’s response to the donation here.)

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Ascension Press’ donation of Bible Timeline materials arrives at Kolbe Prison Ministries.

Would you share any favorite stories of what it’s like to volunteer with the program, or personal transformation from participating?

There are so many amazing accounts of conversion and “a-ha!” moments, but here are two of my favorites.

We wanted to minister to a medium custody population, which has very little interaction with anyone. We were able to receive support from our chaplain and approval from the warden to introduce The Bible Timeline Study to this group of inmates. One brother-in-white, who serves as a field minister for the unit, refers to this study as “a Godsend”. When we handed out the materials (Bible, catechism and Bible Timeline Workbook), the men were so excited. With Ascension’s study, they are eager to come to class each week and have incredible dialogue with each other. Since that first group, we have already had several of the participating brothers-in-white get approved for the general population, enabling them to attend Mass, adoration, and RCIA. They can also continue The Bible Timeline study with the general population inmates. Nothing could reflect hope and purpose more than these faces.

While personal transformation occurs with inmates, it also occurs with volunteers. On one occasion, we were preparing a class of about 20 brothers-in-white to celebrate completion of the Rites of Initiation. Some volunteers serve as sponsors. The assembly of over 100 brothers-in-white was gathered in the multi-faith chapel. For days and days following the event, one of the brothers would joyfully and emotionally announce, “I’m a Catholic! I’m so excited! I’m Catholic!” For the volunteers as well as the brothers who are witnesses to this joy, nothing could catechize better than this declaration. This brother-in-white is now preparing to be an inside facilitator for RCIA.

What is the most important thing you want people to know about Kolbe Prison Ministries?

The mission statement speaks for itself: “To share the agape love of Jesus Christ with those in prison and teach the fullness of the truth of the Catholic Church to the incarcerated.” 

Kolbe Prison Ministries’ retreats create the opportunity for conversion of heart. Our work doesn’t stop there. The invitation to go deeper in faith and experience the love of the Father and the beauty and truth of Mother Church must continue. It is up to all of us to recognize that incarcerated men and women are created in the image and likeness of God; as such, they deserve to be treated with dignity, recognizing that, as Pope Francis has said, “the Church’s duty, one she cannot renounce, is to awaken within you the desire for true freedom” and “communicating without hesitation the goodness and gratuitous mercy of God.”

How can people get involved and help support Kolbe Prison Ministries?

Above everything, we need your prayers for this important ministry. If you feel that tug to serve from inside or outside the gates, know there is much work to be done, one brother or sister at a time. 

Go to our website: www.kolbeprisonministries.org.

Click on Volunteers and Volunteering. 

Complete the information … We will direct you to the nearest Core Team in your area.

If you are unable to volunteer, but still want to help, click on Support Us.

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