“I was in prison, and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).
These words of Jesus are a source of constant inspiration for Tony Stuart in his role as a Catholic prison chaplain. Tony, who is based in Goulburn, New South Wales, has for the past three-and-a-half years been a familiar visitor to about 400 inmates at the local jail.
Describing his place of work, Tony paints a challenging picture.
“I often feel a tangible darkness as I walk into the jail,” he says. “Among the inmates, there is a lot of sadness, unprocessed trauma and the repercussions of drug and substance abuse. Yet, there is also a real hunger for God – and his mercy – and there can be profound healing in the Word of God.”
In terms of his day-to-day prison ministry, Tony says the COVID-19 pandemic had a dramatic impact on prisoners and the ability of chaplains to serve them as they would normally.
“However, in recent months we have returned to some normality and have been able to offer regular prayer services, one-on-one conversations when requested and the ability to simply hang around the yards and workspaces for impromptu conversations,” he says.
One of the great joys Tony has experienced in his role has been the celebration of three baptisms.
“The men who have been baptised are very different from each other,” says Tony, “and I have had to tailor an individual process for each inmate’s catechesis and formation as they prepared for the sacrament.”
Tony uses a wide variety of resources in his ministry, including those from Bishop Robert Barron and Dr Brant Pitre from the United States. More recently he has arranged for the National Centre for Evangelisation’s Discovering Prayer and Discovering God and what it means to be Catholic to be loaded onto the inmate’s electronic tablets.
Tony notes the chaplaincy service facilitates members of Kairos Prison Ministry Australia to visit the prisoners on a fortnightly basis. Kairos offers an open invitation to all inmates to join them for prayer, a song or two, a short talk on a Scripture passage and, over a cuppa, time for small group discussions. Kairos has also delivered a well-received short course for the inmates. Like a Cursillo, this was an opportunity for those present to discover themselves, their relationship with Christ and with others.
A recent highlight facilitated by the chaplaincy service was a visit by Andrew Fisher, founder of Jesus Racing. Speaking on the consequences of important life choices and decisions, the inmates were greatly inspired by the presentation.
A regular prayer life and a commitment to evangelisation and service provide an important framework for Tony’s ministry. Tony’s wife, Jude, and their family also provide plenty of love and support. His previous work as a university chaplain, as a tutor to young Indigenous children and teaching violin provide him with plenty of life skills to draw upon in his ministry.
Tony is also chair of the Catholic Prison Ministry Association, which aims to be a supportive network for the chaplains. An annual retreat and quarterly meetings provide opportunities for the chaplains to be replenished in their ministry of supporting men and women who are on the peripheries of society.
When asked what other support Tony and the other chaplains require, he suggests two main areas of need. First, for those who have the gift of walking with the marginalised, joining volunteer organisations, like Kairos, can boost their numbers, allowing more opportunities for visitation and accompaniment of the inmates. Secondly, he asks for prayer – for the chaplains, and for those to whom they minister.
Tony, and all Catholic prison chaplains are reminders to everyone of Jesus’ teaching about the final judgement, that what we did for the least members of society, we did to Him (Matthew 25:40).
Pope Francis, who has made the washing of prisoners’ feet at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday a regular part of his ministry, reminds us of two things. First, it is by the grace of God that many of us do not end up where the prisoners are, because we all could stray. And second, that the Lord is close to each prisoner, and that “he will never abandon them, never”.
 Catholic News Agency, 6 April 2023. Pope Francis washes feet of young inmates on Holy Thursday 2023.
ACBC Social Justice Statement (2011), Burning Bridges, Not Walls: Prisons and the justice system
Kairos Prison Ministry Australia
Images: Prison (Unsplash); Tony Stuart (Supplied)
Words: Sharon Brewer