Sunday, 22 July 2012

ad vincula, in clink- or ‘a place of redemption’?

This morning, our attendance at Mass was a little different. Our photographs were taken, our fingerprints scanned and our belongings stowed away, before joining Rt Rev Mgr Malachy Keegan, Principal Catholic Chaplain at the National Offender Management Service- i.e. National Prisons’ Chaplain- and scores of inmates in the chapel of Her Majesty’s Prison, Pentonville. A Category B/C  prison, it holds some 1200 men, some serving short sentences or beginning longer sentences, but the majority of whom are on remand.

It was in order to house those on remand or awaiting transportation that construction of HMP Pentonville was begun in 1840- making it one of the oldest prisons in the country- and its [then] radical new design of a central hall with five radiating wing blocks, intended to keep prisoners isolated, was used as a prototype for hundreds more throughout Britain and the empire. Although much refurbishment has taken place, the original four cellblocks are as they were when the prison opened in 1842.

Pentonville is a ‘local’ prison, and inmates have included playwright Oscar Wilde, historian David Irving and singers Pete Doherty, Boy George and George Michael. Pentonville also hosted the executions of Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement and the infamous Dr Crippen.

Every prisoner has the right to pursue their declared faith and to participate in relevant acts of worship- even when segregated.

Thus, every prison has a Chaplaincy department, and when a prisoner first arrives, they are usually seen by a Chaplain within 24 hours. The Chaplaincy are able to organise faith activities for all main religions (as recognised by the Prison Service), and can also intercede on matters of religious dress, diet and artefacts.

When we arrived, the Church of England liturgy was in progress- like in the university chaplaincies that we were used to, everyone has their turn. The acting Anglican chaplain actually played the organ for our Mass; it marked a beautiful symmetry with the twin Blessed Sacrament Chapels to the rear. I must admit that the possibility of the Blessed Sacrament’s being reserved in a prison never occurred to me, and I hope that the inmates draw strength from it.

Fr Malachy told us that there are always more inmates who wish to hear Mass than can be accommodated, which is both impressive and also sad, as it means that many cannot fulfil the Sunday obligation as they would wish, but Pentonville is to receive a new Chaplain next week, and there is talk of a second Mass to meet demand! Certainly those prisoners who were able to attend were enthusiastic, and clearly glad of the Monsignor’s care and attention.

It struck me that many seemed unfamiliar with the words and actions of the liturgy, and that this pointed to prisoners rediscovering their faith as a source of strength while in prison. This was reinforced by the number of men who sought both a blessing and reception of the host at communion.

No matter what certain elements of the press might have us believe, a prisoner’s life is not an easy one. Something bad set them on a path that ended in jail, which is tough enough to begin with, and which very often catches them again all too quickly upon release. All too often, we are talking about drugs. Many have fallen into crime because of the effects of drugs, or because of the company that drug abuse often entails, or in seeking to sustain a drug habit. Despite the best efforts of prison authorities, drugs infiltrate the walls, with cases of prisoners becoming addicted while inside, and the dealers are rarely far from the gates, ready to greet those who have been freshly released.

Effective rehabilitation and education can counter this, but it needs a support structure. Fr Malachy spoke to us about projects designed to support those newly released as they build new relationships and lives, and these are estimated to have already saved the prison service in the region of a quarter of a million pounds through lowered recidivism. This is achieved through daily contact with those offering of themselves for this vital work, and is inspired by Christian solidarity.

We discussed the changing pattern of imprisonment in this country, and its effectiveness- or lack thereof. Britain’s prisons currently hold almost 90,000 people- think Bath surrounded by barbed wire and fencing- while our French cousins have comparable levels of crime despite detaining a third fewer convicts. There is also the issue of short sentences: why do we hand down sentences of mere weeks or months? It cannot conceivably be for public safety or rehabilitation. It is for punishment, it is to show that retribution has been exacted, but does it bring about change?

The nature of chaplaincy provision is also changing. Cuts have meant that the service must be justified in its current form, and there seems to be little understanding of why it wouldn’t do for a general chaplain to provide the majority of pastoral care. There seems to be little appreciation of the different ecclesiologies not only between faiths but also between denominations. A Methodist chaplain could no more hear a Catholic prisoner’s confession than a Buddhist chaplain; there are plenty of such examples. Chaplains do much more than lead services, and even if the bureaucrats and civil servants can’t quantify that, the governors are more than fully aware of their value.

Catholics are called, both in scripture and by church leaders, to help and support the imprisoned. It is almost eight years since the Bishops’ Conference published ‘In Place of Redemption’, which made a series of recommendations to improve conditions in prisons and also to improve the prospects for rehabilitation, and indeed for true redemption. The title paraphrases a quote from Blessed John Paul II:
“Prison should not be a corrupting experience, a place of idleness and even vice, but instead a place of redemption.”
Afterwards, we collected our belongings, handed in our passes and stepped out into the sunlight. We are fortunate in this, and we might all offer a prayer for the thousands who, whatever their story, now live lives where they are largely cut off from loved ones, and who are often alone for the majority of their day. We walked on, in search of tea.

For more information on the work of the Catholic Church in England and Wales with regard to prisons, go here.

Information relating to the prison is taken from, the Ministry of Justice and Wikipedia.
Picture credits: Ian Waldie/Getty ImagesWikimedia; Mazur/; Vatican via Reuters files.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Lord Patten

Lord Patten’s entry on Wikipedia reads like a history of pivotal political moments of the last 30 years. Starting out as a researcher for the Conservative party before being promoted to the director of the Conservative Research Department, Lord Patten’s meteoric rise through the political hierarchy began in the same sort of role as some of the interns have held this year.

Lord Patten has come a long way since then. Between 1979 - 1992 he was the MP for Bath, serving as Minister for Overseas Development from 1986 - 1989. He was then appointed to the Cabinet as Secretary f State for the Environment and became responsible for the unpopular Community Charge (aka Poll Tax).

Under John Major Lord Patten was made Chairman of the Conservative Party before being asked to fulfill the role of Governor of Hong Kong, during which time he oversaw the return of the island to China from the British Government.

Stephen, Lord Patten, Dom, Marie, Lucy, Daniel and Matthew

We met with Lord Patten on a humid Tuesday afternoon in his office in No 1 Millbank, which also gave us the opportunity to see where Matthew has been hiding all year (a room with a solitary desk, computer and TV, it seemed about right).

Fresh from discussing the quality and impartiality of BBC News with their main political correspondent, Nick Robinson, in his latest incarnation as Commissioner of the BBC Trust Lord Petten seemed somewhat weighed down by the many things that must be on his mind.

Nonetheless he was interested to learn about the Internship scheme and where each of us had come from, what we had been up to this year and where we were going next.

We then had the opportunity to ask him about his own experiences as a Catholic in public life. He was honest and open with us but said that, with very few exceptions, he had never found being a Catholic in parliament problematic or suffered because of prejudices. He had, however, found himself in some interesting situations such as advising the Prime Minister on appointing a new Archbishop of Canterbury in 1991.

One of the first things he did after becoming Chancellor of Oxford University was to commission a plaque commemorating Oxford alumni throughout the ages who had died for their faith. This was to be put up in St Mary’s church in Oxford, an Anglican church, despite commemorating Christian martyrs from any denomination.

Of his time in Hong Kong, Lord Patten said he had a very positive experience of the Catholic Church. When asked about how far the conversation on Climate Change has come since he was Secretary of State for the Environment in the late 80’s and on the topic of the continued viability of the Euro, he was far more sceptical.

This scepticism, he said, was a healthy attribute of any journalist especially those dealing with political stories and scenarios. This was in response to the line from the new Director General of the BBC about journalists waking up in the morning and making the government’s life hell. Lord Patten didn’t dismiss that notion outright.

He encourages us to pursue life in public service as he has found it to be so worthwhile and rewarding himself. 

Monday, 16 July 2012

Aid to the Church in Need

Last Friday we met at the Bishops Conference for our last seminar of the year. This was delivered by John Pontifex the Head of Press and Information at Aid to the Church in Need, a global organisation helping Christians who are persecuted.

John Pontifex
John started by telling us that the right to religious freedom, and to choose or change your religion, is enshrined within the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which is as good a place as any to start for defending Christians worldwide.

We learnt about the real life stories behind the news stories we’ve all seen, including the terrible bombing of a church in Nigeria during Mass on Christmas Day in 2011.

The risks people take to continue to be Christians and practice their faith in many places around the world, especially in the East, were astounding and made me feel pretty lazy not to mention lucky. I’ve certainly never had the feeling that I am literally taking my life in my hands by attending Mass, no matter how dodgy Euston may seem.

In North Sudan, for example, Priests have been kidnapped and their houses ransacked. In China and North Korea, priests and Bishops have been jailed or simply disappeared. In Zimbabwe, the Catholic community have been caught up in conflict between the Anglican church and the government. In these countries and many more people carry out their faith at a considerable cost, their courage must not be forgotten by those of us who take such things for granted.

Easter in South Sudan
John Allan, a senior Catholic reporter on world affairs, has described these people as a “New wave of Christian martyrs.” They face persecution on a daily basis and struggle against prejudices which label them as Western sympathisers and outsiders.

The lack of political will to deal with the issue of Christian persecution is staggering. Government’s are aware but unwilling to deal with hate crimes committed against Christians, opting to keep the status quo.

Catholics are often particularly mistrusted by their governments because of our loyalty to Rome and the Pope. Authoritarian regimes try to contain Catholicism like a disease, fearful of it spreading and causing general dissent or disillusionment with the governing authorities.

Upholding the rights of Christians in these countries is especially problematic due to the lack of respect for the rule of law. Local militia groups often claim responsibility for attacks carried out on Christian neighbourhoods or individuals, taking the law into their own hands and interpreting it to suit themselves.

Aid to the Church in Need carries out a range of projects across the world, from building churches in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami, to distributing the Children's Bible wherever it works, as well as funding seminarians in developing countries and providing relief in exceptional circumstances.

The 50 millionth copy of the Children's Bible was published last month

John finished his talk by reminding us that whilst fundraising is crucial to the work of Aid to the Church in Need, so is prayer. 

Friday, 6 July 2012

Intern Alumni Drinks

Eccleston Square Garden has come into its own over the past month, playing host to a great BBQ shared by current interns and a lovely drinks reception for interns both past and present.

Fiona Paley, a former Archbishop’s House intern, organised last night’s drinks reception giving many of those who have been involved with the scheme over the years the opportunity to meet up and reminisce as well as hearing about how the scheme has developed.

The weather was on our side and everyone enjoyed chatting with familiar, and some not so familiar, faces over wine and nibbles.

From having spent a year with an MP, in Archbishop’s House or with the Catholic Education Service, former interns appeared to have branched out into a variety of public sector services, from teaching to local government with a few lawyers thrown in for good measure.

Others continue to work for the Church in some capacity; two former interns, Peter and Luke, are in their second year of training for the priesthood out in Rome. One lady is now the Catholic Chaplain for the University of Greenwich and another is working for the Foundation for Marriage.

There has also been the first internship engagement between Chris and Anna – congratulations to them both!
Congratulations are also in order to Dominic who is set to become the co-ordinator for the APPG on Sustainable Agriculture and Development after a successful interview for the post earlier this week.

After a fun few hours in the garden last night, with spirits running high but funds running low for current interns, we said our goodbyes to our predecessors and headed off to Blackfriars bridge for a light show, highly recommended by Michaela.

With day-old croissants and pre-mixed G&T’s in hand (because that’s how we live these days), we excitedly made our way to the embankment, highly anticipating the new levels of wonder and awe Michaela had promised would be encountered.

The disappointment experienced was overwhelming (Dom got pretty rowdy) and Michaela, Matthew, Dom and I strolled back to Newman House stopping off on route for some truly ‘Independent chips’ – fulfilling Daniel’s prophesy form the beginning of the year.

Thank you to everyone who attended last night and to Fiona for organising it – truly the hostess with mostess