by Niko Petrogeorge
Recently, my colleague Fr. Stephen Powley made a pilgrimage to St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. Among the many esteemed staff at St. Tikhon’s is our friend, Fr. John Kowalczyk, who is a chaplain at a nearby prison and also teaches a class on “Foundations of Pastoral Theology” to our seminarians.
As part of this class, the seminarians do an internship at the nearby prison, SCI Waymart. The students study under Fr. John and also visit prisoners and apply what they discuss in the classroom. At the end of they program, they receive a certificate which they can use to help get contract positions as prison chaplains.
You can read here a reflection from a current seminarian, Brad, who is in this program and has been visiting prisoners through Zoom, due to COVID. They are expecting to have in-person vistations next semester.
When Fr. Stephen and I toured SCI Waymart, many men told us how much the Zoom visitations from the seminarians meant to them. Indeed, because of the positive impact that this program has had on the prisoners, through this COVID crisis, the seminarians have been the only volunteers still allowed to visit the prison.
Fr. Stephen did two guest lectures and taught about the “ministry of presence”. This is the ministry of simply visiting with people and being with them over time. It is the ministry of few words but of being a peaceful presence in the midst of the chaos in this life. This is a very important and powerful ministry to know how to do in prison. In the recent gospel reading of the Gennesaret Demoniac (Mark 5) we see how Christ ministers to a man who is mentally ill: he asks him his name and acknowledges him as a person. So, in the prison ministry, the seminarians call the prisoners by their name, and they sit with them and hear them and talk with them rather than at them.
Fr. Stephen was also able to share with the seminarians the lessons he learned from prison ministry that he applies to his parish. We are very grateful to our brothers at the seminary and, God-willing through these experiences we will not only see many more prison chaplains but also seminarians who are equipped to face the diverse pastoral challenges of their priesthoods.