Port Charlotte | The men and women who enter the jails and prisons scattered throughout the Diocese of Venice serve a crucial role to a segment of society that is too commonly dismissed and forgotten.
The nearly 150 prison outreach volunteers were recognized for their work by Bishop Frank J. Dewane during a Mass of Appreciation Nov. 8 at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Port Charlotte. The outreach provides a variety of services, including Bible study, religious education and assistance with receiving the sacraments such as Baptism, First Holy Communion and Confirmation.
“Thank you for what you do,” Bishop Dewane said to the gathered volunteers. “Your service comes from the heart. You have the insight and the desire to see the need and to serve those who are on the margins—our brothers and sisters in Christ who are incarcerated.”
The volunteers in prison outreach have the foresight to help those they serve to focus on the future and not the past, the Bishop added. “You do not judge. You look into their eyes and see the humanity and share in the goodness that comes from within the person.”
Bishop Dewane, who himself celebrates Mass at jails and prisons within the Diocese of Venice more than a dozen times each year, said the volunteers who participate in prison outreach touch the heart of the incarcerated because they talk to them about the Lord. The Bishop, who admitted that his first prison visits, while working in Rome, caused so much nervousness, said his visits have impacted him in different ways.
When celebrating the Mass for the incarcerated, the Bishop said he knows he is bringing the forgiveness, mercy, compassion, peace, love and joy of the Lord to others. Since his appointment as Bishop of the Diocese in 2006, Bishop Dewane has conferred the Sacraments of Confirmation, First Communion and Baptism for numerous inmates.
Bob Hiniker, who helps to coordinate the prison outreach throughout the Diocese, stressed the importance to continue to expand the number of people who volunteer in the five state prisons, 10 county jails and one civil commitment program. There are approximately 15,000 incarcerated within the Diocese, meaning the need is great.
A program for the volunteers followed the Mass and encompassed a number of presentations, including updates on the process of implementing a new bereavement program into the facilities; the plan to expand a job readiness program; and a new restorative justice effort called “Bridges to Life.”
The group was also blessed to have two special guests, Florida Department of Corrections State Chaplaincy Administrator Johnny Frambo and Chaplain Father Severyn Kovalyshin of State Region 3 (which includes the entire Diocese).
Frambo said his sole job to ensure the continued access of volunteers to enter the state prisons and minister to the incarcerated and vowed that if they face any obstacle that they need only contact him directly. There are 95,000 inmates in the state prison system which are divided into four regions. Of the 95,000, nearly 10% are Catholic.
“Catholic volunteers do a wonderful job throughout the state,” Frambo said. “You are among them and when you are there you recognize Christ’s image in those who you visit … What we all do is to answer God’s call, who uses us to changes lives.”
Bishop Dewane was joined at the Mass by several concelebrating priests, many of who also serve in area jails and prisons. In all, 25 priests and 12 deacons serve in prison outreach.