By Linda Bordoni
“Faith Inside” is a programme of Catholic teaching designed specifically for those who are inside a prison, want to learn more about their faith and perhaps apply it to their daily lives.
The guide by prison chaplain, Fr. Eddie McGhee and published by Redemptorist Publications, explores topics such as the mercy of God, prayer, the Bible, the sacraments and personal relationships.
As Editor for Special Projects at Redemptorist Publications, Sr Janet Fearns was hands-on in visiting prisons, gathering material, speaking to the people and putting it all together.
She told me about the programme that comprises two books, one for chaplaincy teams and one for prisoners.
Above all, she told me of how the experience has enriched her, given her a new perspective and perhaps even deepened her faith:
Sr Janet explained that as Editor of Special Projects at Redemptorist Press, one of the special projects she has been – and continues to be - heavily involved in, seeing her engaged on a day-to-day basis with the challenging (and rewarding) realities of prison life – both for chaplains and for inmates.
She said that the priest who is responsible for prison ministry for the Bishops’ Conference approached Redemptorist Publications because he believes there is a real need for a specific catechetical programme for the prisons.
“Everything that was available comes from the US and it doesn’t ‘fit in Britain” she said.
RCIA Programme in 12 Units
Sr Janet said the resulting “Faith Inside” course is a RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) programme in 12 units that is especially designed for the prisons.
For her, she continued, it meant going into the prisons personally “to find out what prisoners wanted and what chaplains wanted, and then trying to make sure that everything would meet”.
The project ended up producing two books – one for the chaplains and one for prisoners – and, Sr Janet explained, they are written in an engaging style and presented in an accessible format so that everyone – from all walks of life - could make use of them.
She noted that in prisons “you also get people of quite a high intellectual status, so it couldn’t be simplistic: it had to be something that could somehow address all.”
Prayers by prisoners
As part of the programme she got prisoners to write some of the prayers included in the course.
“I could sit down and make them up” she said, “but to actually come from the prisoners themselves: they’re real!”
Sr Janet tells some of the stories remembering some of the people she has met inside the prisons and went on to do the course, like the inmate whose prayer she published: “62 words of his prayer had been a turning point in his life because nobody had ever told him he could do anything that was good”
“So it’s been a much bigger thing than expected” she said.
She explained that the books were printed it –with help from the Jerusalem Trust – as cheaply as possible but with high quality materials: something else that affirmed those inside.
“A lot of the people in prison have had so little education, so little care, so little thought, that they have never had the opportunity to obtain a certificate, so we made the programme so they could follow it out of interest, but also so that if they wanted to use it as part of a sacramental programme they could, and they would get a certificate for going through the course: it was something they could have and hold” she said.
Something new that has grown out of the original programme is a pamphlet for preparing for the Sacrament of Reconciliation that is currently being done as a pro-bono project.
“We are now in the process of printing 10,000 copies for distribution in the prison.
Sr Janet confessed to really loving the work she has been doing, both with the inmates and with the chaplains.
She talked about some of the prison inmates and about how learning to relate to interact with them has enriched her personally and shone the light on how for so many of these people, who really are at the peripheries of existence, finding God has changed everything and made them feel loved.
“Obviously I can’t go into people’s stories, but there are some fantastic people behind bars” she said noting that so many people are in prison because they have never had a chance, so many have been abused and hurt themselves.
Regarding the attention Pope Francis repeatedly focuses on prisoners and on the situations in prisons, by washing the feet of prison inmates on Holy Thursday and by visiting prisons during his journeys, Sr Janet said it means a lot to those on the inside.
She recalls how during the Holy Year of Mercy many inmates were asked to see their prison doors as Holy Doors – as requested by the Pope – “and of how much it meant to them.
“They want to belong, and belong to whom? And the fact they have found Jesus, she concluded, and to know that the Pope actually cares for them as individuals means something”.