WHEN Fr Tony Girvan speaks to prisoners he doesn’t ask what they have done, only what they can become.
“I go in as a witness to Christ,” he said.
“That’s what Christ saw in everyone – not what they’ve done wrong but what potential they can bring to the Kingdom of God.
“It won’t fully be the Year of Mercy until the least in our society are brought into our Church.”
In the confronting world behind bars and razor wire, Fr Girvan, former parish priest of Regents Park, now spreads a message of hope among inmates in south-east Queensland jails.
“The message is they are not forgotten,” he said. “Even when the world has turned its back and forgotten you – you are not forgotten in God’s eyes.
“For some we are the only visitor in a week. We are the only ones who will ask ‘how are you doing’.”
Fr Girvan was appointed in April as the full-time chaplain to prisons and works alongside more than 20 lay and religious order chaplains in the Archdiocese of Brisbane.
While local parish priests do make prison visits, the archdiocese has not had a priest as a full-time chaplain since Fr Kevin Ryan, who died in 2011.
“There hasn’t been that sacramental presence across the board for a long time. That’s the gap I fill,” Fr Girvan said.
He said as well as seeing the face of the Church through visits, he could bring prisoners “into the life of the Church” through the sacraments.
There are 11 prisons and 7000 inmates and the way Fr Girvan sees it jails are society’s forgotten zones – the inmates, pacing behind bars in a “human zoo” that most of us never get to see.
Fr Girvan estimated indigenous inmates made up 25 per cent of the prison population.
“It’s a whole cross-section of society on the inside,” he said. “There are people who have grown up and never had a chance in life.
“They’ve grown up in abusive families surrounded by drugs and violence and they’ve never known another way.
“From the cradle to where they are at now they have been in constant survival mode.
“Once they are in prison that doesn’t stop. It can be hell on earth in jail.
“Every single day inside is routine. It is one, long, endless routine.
“They grow up disadvantaged, and often it’s the only life they know.”
Despite the bleak, hostile image, Fr Girvan said he rarely felt threatened by inmates, and he found prisons “a place of miracles”.
In several of the prisons he celebrates Mass on a monthly basis, in others he takes Communion to the prisoners.
Fr Girvan is allowed to walk the exercise yard with prisoners, and he can enter secure sections close to their cells and sit at a table with them.
Most prisons also have small chapels.
“We go where they are. We are available to everyone in the system,” Fr Girvan said.
He said chaplains were available to everyone in the prison system, and that included some of the big names whose cases have made headlines.
“We don’t ask them what they’ve done. Occasionally it comes up, but we have to be the face of love to those guys – the non-condemning, non-judgemental face of love,” he said.
“As a chaplain that’s what we are called to do – to see more than what they have done. And that’s hard to do sometimes.”
By Mark Bowling