Prisoner of Christ

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by Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th.  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  April 9, 2020   

Priest opts to live with prisoners during pandemic

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VICTORIA, British Columbia (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Canadian cleric is choosing to be locked up with his flock of inmates rather than be separated from them.

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Bp. Gary Gordon

The Correctional Service of Canada recently suspended all visits to its federal prisons owing to fear of spreading the Wuhan virus. But according to Bp. Gary Gordon, head of the diocese of Victoria, British Columbia, one of his priests is casting aside all fear and wants to remain on the inside to care for prisoners.

"He offered to go there and live in the institution 24–7," recalls Gordon. "For a bishop to hear that from a priest, you say 'OK, this is what it's all about. This is the vocation — lay it on the line.' It's really beautiful."

Experts agree that the priest, whose name Gordon has withheld, could be in serious danger of contracting the virus if he's allowed to remain in the prison. Bonnie Weppler, executive director of the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, compared the danger of inmates catching the Wuhan virus to those in long-term convalescent homes or on cruise ships.

This is the vocation — lay it on the line. It's really beautiful.

"What would you expect to happen? The same as you see happening in seniors' homes. If one person gets it, a whole bunch are going to get it," commented Weppler.

But on the inside, prisoners are in need of care, remarked Gordon, and entitled to it.

Gordon is the representative of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops for Canada's prison ministry. As the bishops' liaison with the correctional system, Gordon hopes to keep federal officials from completely separating prisoners from their chaplains.

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"If someone is gravely ill, then the priest should be allowed to bring them the holy anointing of the sick and viaticum," asserted Gordon. 

And the need isn't just in the spiritual realm, said Carleton University law professor Rebecca Bromwich.

Bromwich noted, "There is lots of research that, for religious or spiritually-engaged people, chaplaincy services are integral to those peoples' mental health."

She did advise, however, that institutions must keep visitors "from becoming disease vectors."

This is not the time I will abandon them.

In Brampton, Ontario, spiritual care of prison inmates has been deemed an essential service. As such, it is still allowed for those willing to perform it.

Deacon Joseph Owusu-Afriye has been in prison ministry for 10 years. He regularly visits the Roy McMurtry Youth Center in Brampton that's within the archdiocese of Toronto. He was given the opportunity to continue his visits during the ongoing pandemic and agreed to do so.

"I weighed all the options," said the deacon, "and had a talk with my wife, but we decided, 'OK.'"

"This is the time that probably they need somebody to visit them regularly, to listen and be with them," he said. "This is not the time I will abandon them."

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