Justice is not only incomplete without mercy and charity, it is incoherent. To understand justice properly, we must place it within a paradigm of relationship and restoration. To do justice in this way is to heal and restore the broken relationships caused by harm. Justice that is restorative demands accountability and is always oriented toward a horizon of wholeness and hope. This can be achieved in our criminal legal system.
The United States incarcerates more people than any other country on the planet, with more than 2 million people currently residing in our nation’s prisons and jails. This is not an accident, nor should it come as a surprise. Our criminal legal system was both shaped by and continues to perpetuate a narrative about people who are incarcerated. Labeling them the “worst of the worst,” claiming that achieving justice requires punishment, isolation, and dehumanization. Coupled with decades of policy shaped by lawmakers’ prejudice, bias, and/or racist assumptions, our current state of mass incarceration was all but guaranteed.
We must change the narrative that feeds prejudice and the impulse for vengeance that pervades much of our criminal legal system. As individuals, we are responsible for the way we talk about people who are incarcerated, and for challenging others’ long held assumptions and beliefs. Accountability extends from the dinner table, with family and friends, to our elected officials, in how they speak and what policies they pursue. As voters we can help to achieve a justice that is restorative in our criminal legal system by voting for candidates and policies who promote this understanding.
This perspective is needed in our systems, structures, and especially in ministry. When reduced to a transactional delivery of the sacraments to our incarcerated brothers and sisters, ministry ceases to be an embodiment of accompaniment – of journeying with someone who is suffering from harm.
Our faith tells us that human beings are created to live in relationship, in community – the very thing the criminal legal system too often takes away. The goal of prison, jail, and immigration detention ministry, therefore, must be to establish and maintain relationships, to counteract the dehumanization of incarceration and detention. There are several levels at which this must occur, from the individual to the national.
In addition to shifting the narrative and compassionately holding others accountable, we need grassroots ministries led by parish communities. Pope Francis has called for a “revolution of tenderness,” and the ministry of the Catholic Church within prisons, jails, and detention centers is the frontline of that revolution. Our parishes must come to see the people who are incarcerated and detained within their boundaries as members of the parish who, like those who are sick or homebound, cannot physically be present in the church. It is incumbent on the dioceses to support parishes as they seek to live out Pope Francis’ call to tenderness and accompaniment in their ministry through guidance, resources, and training. The diversity of parish communities necessitates support that is flexible and responsive to local needs. The same holds true for those who are incarcerated, whether they are in a prison, jail or other kind of detention facility. Parishes and dioceses should be attentive to those diverse needs, as one would be attuned to the needs of a partner or family member.
Reflecting these relationships, there must also be a relationship between diocesan pastoral centers and parish communities. The health of that relationship is dependent upon our bishops and diocesan leadership modeling the tenderness, mercy, and accountability that justice requires, and is modeled by Pope Francis.
A relationship without these qualities, and without a commitment to synodality and a spirit of listening, is not only disordered but also causes harm in itself. To help inspire and animate grassroots prison ministry, it is the grasstops who must engender and encourage the spirit in which that ministry is conducted. What this looks like across dioceses will differ, but what remains constant is the need for the bishop and other leaders – whether lay or cleric – to commit to a relationship marked by tenderness and accountability with their priests and their people.
It was through this very spirit of synodality that the Archdiocese of Atlanta established its Restorative Justice Ministry in January 2023. Over the previous year, archdiocesan staff, parish clergy, and our bishops engaged in a process of listening and discernment to try to understand the needs of prison ministry in North Georgia, and the ways in which those needs have changed as a result of the pandemic. This process was by no means without its struggles and frustrations. The constant in all our discussions, however, was a commitment to building a ministry that would be accountable to both the people engaged in prison ministry and to the people who are incarcerated in our state. The willingness of our leaders, the bishops in particular, to listen and be open to new ideas and to meet the needs of prison ministry in new ways, was an essential component in this process. Whatever our role in the Church, we are all called to embody those same qualities in all the relationships that are built through our ministries.
The existence of these needs across the country is what makes organizations like Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition such a valuable resource to the work. Having the opportunity to hear from speakers like Father Greg Boyle, SJ and Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, who understand the impact of relationships with people who are incarcerated or otherwise marginalized, can help anyone at the diocesan level to support the work of prison, jail, and detention ministry in a way that helps further the revolution of tenderness. This December, we will have the chance to do just that at Restored by Compassion: Given and Received, a virtual conference hosted by the Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition.
Those in Church leadership, too, should avail themselves of this opportunity, hearing for themselves about building bridges from cathedrals and churches to the prisons, jails, and detention centers that populate their dioceses. If we are to be shepherds who smell like the sheep, all of us should remember that the flock includes people who are incarcerated and detained. In this way, our Church leadership can support and encourage the diocesan staff with roles in this ministry, and all those who help to educate and promote Catholic social doctrine.
The revolution of tenderness must begin with ministering to and accompanying those who are most in need of it – our sisters and brothers whose dignity and existence is threatened daily. This is not easy work, nor is it work that usually gets recognized. As Pope Francis told the members of the European Parliament in 2014, “To tend to those in need takes strength and tenderness, effort and generosity in the midst of a functionalistic and privatized mindset which inexorably leads to a ‘throwaway culture’.”
There are millions of people in our parishes that society has tried to throw away, futures that have been harmed in the criminal legal system. It will take everything we have to change the narrative and to begin restoring their dignity, but it is what the Gospel demands of us. The revolution of tenderness can create a society in which justice works not to isolate and punish, but to heal harm, restore relationships, and enables all people to lead dignified and fulfilling lives. Viva la revolución.
Jayna Hoffacker, M.A. is the Director of Restorative Justice Ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Jayna is also a faculty member in the archdiocese’s permanent diaconate formation program, serves as the chair of the Georgia Catholics Against the Death Penalty committee, and sits on the boards for the Multifaith Initiative to End Mass Incarceration and Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
The Archdiocese of Atlanta is a Presenting Sponsor for Restored by Compassion: Given & Received, on December 1st, from 11am ET – 7pm ET.