“I was . . . in prison and you visited me” Matthew 25:35-36.

It is good to consider how we might maintain the good things we are already doing, do some things in a different or better way, or even consider doing some new things.

One ministry that I would like to encourage in your Regions, local fraternities or even individually is greater outreach to our sisters and brothers in prison.

I have been active at the Alexandria Detention Center in Alexandria, Virginia since 1987. Because of its proximity to Washington, DC and the federal court system, this facility has housed, among many others, the reputed “20th 9/11 terrorist” Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh and Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who chose to go to jail rather than reveal her sources.

I have had many blessed memories at the jail: many prisoners who have shared their stories, their prayers; one man whom we baptized and brought into the church; prison personnel who have received Holy Communion with us.

One favorite moment was the time Bishop Paul Loverde came to celebrate Christmas Mass with the prisoners, and it was my honor to assist him.

When the Bishop started his homily, he said, “I came to see Jesus. Where is Jesus?”

The prisoners looked shocked. What is he talking about?

The Bishop explained that in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, Jesus said “I was . . . in prison and you visited Me” (verse 35-36). He went on to make them feel that they were like Jesus and that they should be Jesus to one another. He gave them both greater dignity and a sense of mission.

This is exactly where the National Executive Council (NEC) began its Guidelines for Secular Franciscan Prison Ministry, which were unanimously approved by the entire National Fraternity (NAFRA) at our National Chapter on October 19, 2013, and which are included below and attached.

I believe that a careful reading of these Guidelines is self-explanatory. Permit me to stress again the value the National Fraternity sees in prison ministry for Secular Franciscans who feel so called. We do find Jesus in our prisons, but by the very reality of the situation, prisoners do not have control of their lives. They may be moved at any time; they cannot gather within the facility on a consistent basis; they cannot go outside the facility; nor is it easy for others to come in and observe or be with them.

For all these reasons and more, the time for formation and formal admission into our Secular Franciscan Order must come after release from prison, when both former prisoners and the local fraternity will have greater freedom to journey together in vital fraternity as permanently committed Brothers and Sisters of Penance.

Please note that these Guidelines do not address prisoners who have already been permanently professed; nor do we address permanent members of other institutions such as nursing homes or assisted living facilities. These Guidelines specifically address a problem that had arisen in several Regions and are not intended at this time as a legislative norm that will cover all situations in all institutions. The NEC feels that common sense, guided by prayer and the Holy Spirit, with knowledge of the Rule, the General Constitutions and the National Statues will usually be sufficient to address other concerns. If not, recourse can always be made to the National Fraternity and its Executive Council.

Nor do we say that prison ministry is for everybody. I still get a little nervous every time those big metal prison doors clang behind me, and I have been “panhandled” by one or two “hustlers” even when vested as a deacon within the walls of the facility! Still, Pope Francis has called us to ministry at the margins by his words and example. St. Francis certainly did likewise. And prayer itself is a positive ministry. Do your fraternities, do you, regularly pray for prisoners? Has anyone in your local fraternity (including you) ever participated in prison ministry either by consistent prayer or physical presence? Is the Lord calling you and your fraternity in some way to this ministry?



Adopted October 19, 2013

  1. “I was . . . in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-6). Ministry to people in prison is a good gospel-based ministry for OFS members. We encourage such a ministry for those who are called to it. “As the Father sees in every person the features of his Son, the firstborn of many brothers and sisters, so the Secular Franciscans with a gentle and courteous spirit accept all people as a gift of the Lord and an image of Christ” (Secular Franciscan Rule 13).
  2. Individuals who are in prison can be encouraged to learn about the Franciscan charism. People in prison can read and learn about St. Francis and begin to live his spirit in prison. Prayer groups, Christian education and Bible study can be established to offer prisoners hope and a sense of belonging to a faith community.
  3. It benefits neither prisoners nor Secular Franciscans to invite prisoners to enter formation to become permanently professed members of the OFS while still in prison. Prisoners lack control of their own lives. They may be moved at any time and therefore lack a sense of permanence in a set place. They cannot congregate consistently to participate in a common formation program with approved spiritual assistance. Nor can they work together in fraternity performing apostolic ministries. In addition, by very definition, it is impossible for prisoners to participate directly in the life of a local fraternity outside the prison (cf. National Statutes Article 18.5a). Similarly, the local fraternity cannot witness formation and profession of a prisoner.
  4. Therefore, the time for formation and formal admission into the OFS must come after release from prison. These individuals would then be able to begin formation in a fraternity of their choice. They and the members of that local fraternity would both be free and able to discern a Secular Franciscan vocation in the same way as any applicant.

These guidelines were approved and adopted by the OFS National Fraternity Council gathered in Chapter on October 19, 2013

Reflection Questions

  1. What is the corporal work of mercy discussed in this article?
  2. Is this ministry for every Secular Franciscan? Why or why not?
  3. In the article, what did the Bishop mean when he asked, “I came to see Jesus. Where is Jesus?”
  4. What are, say, five problems with serious formation of permanently professed Secular Franciscans within a prison facility?
  5. Besides serious formation of permanently professed Secular Franciscans within a prison facility, what are, say, three other “Franciscan” activities that might be done by Secular Franciscans with prisoners?
  6. What do the NAFRA Guidelines urge as the best time for local fraternities and prisoners to think seriously about permanent formation in the Secular Franciscan Order? Why?
  7. Do the NAFRA Guidelines suggest that perhaps it might be best for Secular Franciscans to have nothing to do with prison ministry? Why or why not?

This is an excerpt from a series of articles by the late Deacon Tom Bello, OFS, former Minister of the National Secular Franciscan Order – USA.  “Many of these essays were originally published in TAU-USA, our national newsletter,” said Jan Parker, OFS, current National Minister. “They are excellent for reflection and ongoing formation.”  Jan helped Tom publish these  essays in book form.  It is called  For All The Saints:  St. Francis’s Five-Point Plan for Salvation and is available from Tau Publishing. These excerpts will appear several times a week on the Secular Franciscans website.