Christian plea for prisoners' amnesty
By Mgr BRUCE KENT
It all started when a young lady working for a prisoners' welfare organisation rang up to ask if anyone was doing anything about Pope Paul's wonderful Holy Year amnesty appeal for prisoners. I tried to pretend that I knew what she was talking about and then rapidly made it my business to find out.
Among all the creative ideas for reconciliation and renewal came this passage in Pope Paul's Holy Year message of June 1974. "We would like in all modesty and sincerity to issue a plea that during this Holy Year, as has come about in past jubilees, the proper authorities of the nations should consider whether it is possible in prudence for each of them to grant an amnesty to prisoners.
"It would testify to their clemency and fairness, especially in the case of prisoners who have given adequate proof of their moral and civil rehabilitation or who have had the misfortune to be caught up in social and political riots and uprisings too irresistible for them to be held fully to blame."
Most of us know little enough about prisons. A couple of trips to borstal and a few visits to the Scrubs on behalf of parishioners is the limit of my experience.
It was something of a surprise to hear a magistrate say on Radio 4 this morning in connection with bus conductor muggings: "We have to remember when sentencing that people often come out of prison worse than when they went in."
Some never come out. The Pope in his compassion was thinking not only of the domestic prisoner, publicly tried and convicted for some crime but also of the hundreds of thousands around the world detained by regimes of the West as well as of the East, usually for political or religious reasons and forgotten about, "I was a prisoner and you visited me," means more than ever it did in the context of today's troubled world.
The Pope's appeal needs to be answered. Here in'England a committee has been set up of which Bishop Guazzelli of Westminster is the chairman, Fr Henry Townsend, SJ (114 Mount Street, WI) the secretary, and among the committee members Hugh Rossi and Jock Stallard, both Members of Parliament.
Twice now the committee has invited all the national Catholic organisations to come together to discuss ways and means of interesting and involving Catholics in this country in the task. But others have led the way.
Bishop Butler said in Westminster Cathedral in October last year, while preaching in support of Amnesty International's Prisoners of Conscience Week: "Do we see Christ in the persecuted man or woman and the political prisoner wherever that prison may be: in Siberia, Portugal, Chile, Uganda, Northern Ireland ... where you will ...?"
Last Saturday in London 45 representatives of nationiil organisations and of other Christian groups put their heads together once more and cooked up an impressive list of practical suggestions.
All were agreed that a renewal of interest in prisoners must start in Holy Year but not end there. Bishops would be asked to declare a National Prisoners Day in parishes, parish councils will be asked to name amnesty representatives, prison chaplains would be invited to meetings of concerned people, support was promised for the Catholic Social Service for Prisoners. the organisation which does so much for the welfare of those detained.
Some parishes, on the model of the admirable Our Lady of the Wayside in Shirley, might form official British Amnesty groups, others might choose to work for the abolition of torture, now almost an international disease.
The suggestions came thick and fast and Fr Townsend will happily supply a full list. But the feeling of the meeting was quite clear that Holy Year is not just a time for further travel. In this practical work for prisoners, at home and abroad, be they guilty or innocent, we have a Holy Year work which could help to reconcile us all in the Body of Christ.
The Justice and Pewit: Commission has distributed 6,500 copies of its booklet "Peace Comes through Reconciliation" to parishes throughout the county, It contains readings, conflict problems and ways to work for their solution.
The Commission is organising a vigil throughout the country for Family Fast Day on February 22, when people will pray for peace and offer money saved by fasting to help the hungry.