The Revd. Charlie Bianco on the challenges of his ministry on the inside In the Gospel, Christ identifies himself with prisoners when he says "I was in prison and you visited me". He did not specify whether they were innocent or guilty, robbers or sex offenders, and as we represent Christ, no one can be excluded from our pastoral love.
As prison chaplains, we work to this simple principle. And the hand of divine wisdom, which comes with time, helps us to carry out our daily duties. All that remains for us to do is passively surrender ourselves to the task, offering no resistance, acting when it is the moment to act, ceasing when it is the moment to cease, and thus never really knowing what is going to happen next.
The following snippets of my life — written during August — may give you an idea of what goes on within the Catholic Church behind the high walls in HMP Pentonville.
Monday: Bible Study on Monday evenings is always over-subscribed. We may look at a reading and eventually arrive at what the Catholic Church teaches about it. Variations and deviations make these sessions ever fresh and enjoyable. Today, Gregory, one of the inmates, burst into song as we were gathering in the Chapel: "Oh Lord my God when I in awesome wonder". We were going to cover creation anyway, so we started naming hymns which covered that subject. Out came my guitar and for an hour we praised God in song and reading of the Scriptures. The men were still singing as I led them back to the wings.
Tuesday: After seeing new receptions and holding a communion service for the VPs (vulnerable prisoners kept apart from the main body for their own good), I received two calls within five minutes asking me to inform respective inmates of the death of a close relative. I duly carried out the unpleasant duty after I had confirmed the deaths with the hospitals concerned, and then granted both men a
phone call to their families. What a horrible duty to perform so many times a year! Afterwards, I thought: "Now I wonder, Lord, what will brighten up my day?" Within the hour, the phone rang again. It was an ex-inmate asking me if I would be prepared to bless his marriage, which I had apparently saved through advice given just before he left us. How could I refuse?
Wednesday: After attending the morning management meeting on behalf of the Chaplaincy Team, I saw the new Catholic reception prisoners and then visited the Segregation Unit and the Health Care Centre. (These are statutory duties which have to be performed daily by a chaplain). I then left to attend a Chaplaincy meeting at Wormwood Scrubs. All other applications were left in the capable hands of Sister Carmel who comes in to help me twice a week.
Thursday: One of my Rest Days. After morning Prayers and Mass, I enjoyed a quick cup of tea with my Parish Priest and then went to the local DIY Stores to pick up wallpaper and start decorating at home. By Friday, I had made a right mess!
Saturday: Penny and Barry, a lovely married couple who give up their weekends 50 times a year to manage my 20ish-strong choir, were away on holiday so I took the Practice, leading the choir on my trusty guitar. I play a lovely D, G, A7, D chord combination, if I say so myself! But when I tried anything beyond that, everyone creased up with laughter. I enjoyed it, though. After that, I faced a hard drive to Rochester, Kent, in the late afternoon to baptise Joshua, a Prison Officer's son.
Sunday: Today was a special day, not just for me but also for Darren, who at the age of 36 was baptised and confirmed during our Sunday Mass. We have worked hard over the last few months preparing him for the big day and his broad smile
said it all.
Monday: After doing my statutory duties, I met with Dwight, a 30-year-old inmate who is preparing for his baptism, for his first session in Roman Catholic Initiation for Adults. Yes, here in this place where the Spirit is moving. Later, a fellow chaplain from another prison came to visit me and accompanied me on a tour of duty to see how I went about the place. The daily tour of the wings is always unpredictable but enjoyable on the whole.
Tuesday: Spent almost an hour on the phone trying to get a supply priest for Sunday Masses. Although I do have a kind of a rota, it is still difficult to find someone if one of the scheduled priests drops out.
Wednesday and Thursday: Travelled down to Croydon for a two day course in Care Team Training. One has to realise the chaplains are here for the staff as much as the inmates. Father Chris substituted for me.
Friday: I could only manage one day off this week, so I had to make the most of it. Attended Mass and then after breakfast, I went for a long day at the races — as a treat. It was good job I didn't put my shirt on the horses I had pennies on — they're still running!
Saturday: Penny and Barry were back. What a relief! The choir members seemed more confident too. Beside usual duties, I was the Care Team member on duty.
Sunday: I wish I could video our Mass on Sundays and send it out to some parishes where Mass is seen to be boring and sleep-inducing. It was so good here that no one dropped off — even when I preached! And the final hymn — We are Marching in the Light of God— was sung with gusto not only by the 100-strong congregation but also by some officers on duty.
Our visiting priest was well impressed.
Monday: Darren is going home tomorrow. He presented me with a cross on a plaque made entirely out of matchsticks. It must have taken him hours to complete. I shall proudly exhibit it with the others I have received over
the time I have served my brothers and sisters as a prison chaplain.
The Revd. Charlie Bianco is Catholic Chaplain of Pentonville Prison and a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Southwark.