VINELAND – Father David Link, 78, knows a thing or two about prison ministry. A successful lawyer and Dean of Notre Dame Law School for 24 years, Father Link came to his priestly vocation late in life. He was ordained in 2008 at 71 years old after the death of his wife of 45 years.
She was the one who first challenged him to try prison ministry. He was skeptical at first, but soon “fell in love” with those he met behind bars. He now serves as chaplain of Indiana State Prison. He celebrates Mass in prison every Sunday and serves a parish made up of six correctional facilities.
He brought these perspectives to a group of some 70 current and prospective prison ministry volunteers from across the Diocese of Camden who gathered on Saturday, June 4 for the third annual Prison Ministry Gathering, held at the former Sacred Heart High School in Vineland.
“You are the hope in these prisons. You are the symbol of love. What a great privilege that is,” he told the group.
The gathering brings together some of the 105 volunteers who currently serve in eight of the nine correctional facilities within the Diocese of Camden, and those who are interested in volunteering, for a day of reflection on their ministry.
“In addition to wanting to show our gratitude for the work they do in the prisons, the day is also a source of encouragement and affirmation,” said Sister Mary Lou Lafferty, OSF, Catholic Charities Prison Ministry Coordinator, who plans the gathering. “It’s to help [the volunteers] understand that what they’re doing can help these incarcerated men and women realize that they’re not bad people, they made a mistake; and that God does love them.”
About 30 of those who attended were prospective volunteers, looking to start up a ministry in their parish or at their local correctional facility. The event was underwritten by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, Sister Lafferty’s congregation.
The day included Father Link’s presentation, lunch and a panel of three formerly incarcerated men and women who shared their experiences with prison ministry.
Harry Cherico, 68, has served for five years as a prison ministry volunteer in the Atlantic County Justice Facility and attended the gathering on Saturday. For him, prison ministry has been the fulfillment of his retirement.
“It’s helped me to grow because you see more readily the fruit of the evangelization. You feel as though you’re really doing something worthwhile for God, that you’re bringing souls to him,” Cherico said. “It helps me to feel that I’m answering a call to do this, to help these people.”
Father Link shared stories from his ministry that emphasized the human dignity of those he had encountered in prison and emphasized a need for a shift in the goal of the criminal justice system from punishment to healing.
“I’m too old to be naïve. There are some people who deserve to be in prison for the rest of their lives. But most would be better served by a community corrections program,” Father Link said. “Most of the people I serve are not really bad; they’re really sick.”
He talked about the economic injustice that leads many to prison, noting that most of the people in the prisons he serves are poor and come from difficult backgrounds of “poverty, bad neighborhoods, dysfunctional families, illiteracy.”
“These aren’t people who fell through the cracks,” he said. “These are people who were born in the cracks. I don’t talk about giving people a second chance because most of these people never had a first chance in life.”
“If you’re rich, we can cure your addiction. If you’re poor you get sent to prison,” he said.
He elaborated on his Crime Peace Plan, a set of recommendations for how to rework the criminal justice system. The steps include everything from reforming sentencing, to providing opportunities post-release, to expanding the roles of law enforcement in criminal trials, to requiring lawyers to participate in criminal defense.
“Whether we like it or not the criminal justice system is more about economics,” he said. “We can’t just feel sorry for the people we see in our prisons; we need to take some action. We need a criminal justice system that doesn’t just punish, but gives hope.”
He closed with the words of an inmate he met in a maximum security prison: “Active compassion in the form of good deeds is God’s language; everything else is just talk,” and a final challenge to the group: “Don’t just talk; get involved in God’s language.”
Learn more about prison ministry in the Diocese of Camden and how to become a volunteer here: catholiccharitiescamden.org/prison-ministry