Prison ministry was a short but valuable experience for me. However, it was not a good fit, as wiser men could have told me right away. My interest is the intellectual dimension of our faith, and how to give credible witness to it rationality, and the prison is not the right place for this kind of question.
Nevertheless, if not because of it, I value having had the experience all the more. I suppose that in prison, one can reasonably hope that one does not do so well. I say this with nothing but respect for those who do well there, especially if they do well for the benefit of those who must be incarcerated, even though they, too, are made in the image of God.
There are few places in which the contradiction of the human condition comes as clearly into focus as in prison, among those whose freedom was taken away, usually for a good reason. It is not the chaplain’s job to judge in the individual situation, even if the chaplain cannot be naive. So what is the chaplain to do? How can our faith be reasonable, not as reasonable argument, but as a reasonable way of life when confronted with the contradictions of life?
During my short stint in prison ministry, I learned about how important the rosary can be. The chaplains there had begun to invite groups of inmates to come together and pray the rosary together. We kept it simple: one “Our Father,” ten “Hail Marys,” one “Glory be,” and all this repeated five times. All the other prayers that are sometimes added were omitted, just so that we would keep it really simple.
It turned into a good experience for the inmates. The lead chaplain told me that there was a very good reason why he chose this practice: this way, when the prisoners get out, they have at least learned these three simple prayers. If later on, they should find themselves with the urge to pray, they could remember these prayers and say them, over and over again, and maybe this would give them peace when they are most in need of it.
When struggling with the intellectual defense of our faith in an environment that shows little interest in our intellectual tradition, experiences like this are a source of great strength. What is more important than winning the argument is to return to the peace of prayerful reflection, to real prayer that calms the mind and lets it rest from intellectual battle. After all, the real battle has already been won. And praying the rosary is a powerful tool in learning a contemplative style of prayer that lives in this knowledge, the kind of prayer that is not about making many words but about finding peace when life looks more complicated than it really is.