Prison Chaplains – Providing faith and hope on the inside

Freedom and prison are concepts that do not usually go together. The freedom many find within the prison has a lot to do with a growing faith in God and relationships with chaplains built on trust and respect.

A prison chaplain aims to offer life-transforming hope through the love of God. Prison chaplaincy is a ministry providing for the spiritual needs of paihere (prisoners). This ministry offers an opportunity to journey with men and women as they encounter the challenges of incarceration and separation from loved ones and whanau. It does so while also acknowledging the crimes that have been done and finding a more positive way forward after release.

Walking alongside one another

An important aspect of a chaplain’s role is bringing a Christ-like presence to the downtrodden. We meet paihere in their units, their workplace or an interview room to listen, observe, and provide an encouraging word or prayer.

This important work is funded in part by the Catholic Development Fund (CDF), New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference (the national body for the bishops of NZ) and Department of Corrections who have an agreement with the Prison Chaplaincy Services Aotearoa NZ (an ecumenical group) which allows for Catholic chaplains to work within New Zealand prisons.

The Diocese of Christchurch is grateful to CDF investors who enable the work of three chaplains within Christchurch’s men’s and women’s prisons. Nikos Palaiologos, Pita Makalio and Diana Emms, with the support and assistance of Fr Frank Kelly, work alongside paihere, coordinate volunteers, and use their faith to give hope of a positive future for them and their families.

Tools of the trade

Clear about her role as a chaplain, Diana Emms states, “it’s not what you know (you can learn) – it’s what’s in your heart that matters. Being non-judgemental and compassionate. It’s as simple as leading a life consistent with the teachings of Jesus. Working within the prisons becomes so much a part of you. It ingrains into your soul – you love what you do. Without Jesus, I couldn’t do this. He helps me with my work. I always pray for the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit and the results he demonstrates confirm that he touches everyone. It’s beautiful to see this.”

Offering Christ’s love amongst adversity is what drives Diana Emms to undertake her work, quoting “It’s a privilege. It’s all about the people – the men and women of our communities who are doing their time for the wrongs they have undertaken. Jesus asks me to be His instrument and share His teachings. I talk to him and ask, ‘what is it you want me to do today?’ He leads, I follow. Jesus paves the way forward for me.”

As Nikos explains, “Going from the ordinary… to the extraordinary… going from the facade to a first overwhelming realisation that there is an immense need for love, that there is an immense need for His love. They don’t need homilies and lectures … “They pass you through the sieve” (Greek expression) in order to see if you are authentic with them. It is through your daily life and your lifestyle that they hear the message of Hope of the Risen One. They need your eye contact and not your words.”

Relationships built on
trust and respect

Trying to understand each person and guide them to lead out life in a spiritual way is the challenge Pita cherishes. He states that trust and respect for one another encourages people to open up, “the more you talk the more you understand a person’s whole story…of their upbringing…their trust becomes their confession. In return I have great reward from this job – it strengthens me and takes my own faith to a deeper level.”

Nikos agrees and explains that “After the first weeks, it was evident that while having to maintain a high level of professionalism, you have to continually put yourself in a welcoming disposition, in a “channel” of disposition so that His Grace can reach all those who are on this condition, without preferences of ethnicity, religion, age, … it is a continual call to unity”.

‘Standing in solidarity’ is how Diana describes the most enjoyable part of her role. “Many I work with have never been loved before. They don’t know what love is, nor how to show it. Our work is all about love.” Diana uses her knowledge of the Bible and faith in Jesus to let people know that God’s great love, care and forgiveness is here for us all. This can be overwhelming for those who’ve not been fortunate enough to experience the love of anyone. As a relationship of trust and mutual respect develops it can lead to deep sharing of personal information, often not divulged before, in turn leading to an internal healing.

Support on the outside

Family support is one of the strongest determining factors for a successful outcome when returning to one’s community. As a chaplain’s pastoral care comes to an end, they help to establish parish connections which provide links to support. A welcoming and open-minded parish can be the vital link to providing the on-going support and success needed for many to transition to a faith filled life.

Pita explains that once a person turns to face the grace of God it will be with them wherever they go, be it to settle down or establish jobs and relationships. Diana celebrates this fact stating that, “we have a real opportunity to turn someone’s life around – even years after their release, also affecting the long-term influence for their families.”

Pastoral care tools which aid chaplains and volunteers to do their work include:        

  • Discussing faith and hope and Jesus Christ
  • Services, song, prayer and scripture (in English, Te Reo and Samoan)
  • Blessing cells (living quarters) and individuals with Holy Water and prayer
  • A listening ear

Our diocese’s chaplaincy service requires volunteers and support to thrive.

For more information about how you, or someone you know of, could volunteer, donate and invest in this important work, see:

NZ Catholic Prison Chaplaincy

Volunteer to help with group activities, music and prayer

Catholic Development Fund providing an annual return to enable chaplaincies

The CDF exists to help the Church achieve its mission by providing loans and funding for activities that strengthen the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch.

Are you ready to invest in good today?