“The heart of prison ministry is bringing the light of Christ into a dark place,” said Deacon Gerry Scilla, prison ministry coordinator for the Diocese of Burlington.

For the men and women in six prisons in Vermont, that light shines through the effort of the Vermont Catholic Charities Inc. prison ministry program and a dedicated team of volunteers, religious, deacons and clergy who provide spiritual support to both Catholic and non-Catholic inmates.

Among those volunteers is Robert Beigen, who brings 27 years’ experience to the ministry, with six of those in the Diocese of Burlington. He currently serves as part of the team visiting the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland. He “has been really excellent making extra trips to prepare inmates for the Sacraments of Initiation,” Deacon Scilla said.

“Prison ministry is not easy,” commented Beigen, a parishioner of St. Peter Parish in Vergennes, recalling the story of Ananias, who was called by God to baptize Saul, a known enemy of Christians, and to relieve the blindness Saul suffered upon his encounter with Jesus.

“Ananias was scared,” Beigen said, “and reminded God of the evil Saul had done to Christians. But God insisted and Ananias went. Look what God did with Saul’s life.”

“I grew up hearing ‘lock them up and throw the key away,’” Beigen recalled, but God has changed my perspective. He has taught me that I’m a sinner, and I’m no better or worse than anyone else.”

Having first been inspired for the ministry by a personal experience of forgiveness, Beigen came to view the ministry early on as a gift from God. “I was scared the first time I went to a prison. I was crying and talking to God. I was being prepared,” he said. Beigen acknowledged that as he spoke with his first prisoner “all the fear went away.”

In the Diocese of Burlington, prison ministry reaches out to those both behind the walls and those newly released, Deacon Scilla explained.

Within the prisons, a priest celebrates Mass at least once a month and hears confession. Communion services take place when possible with a goal of once a week. Bibles, rosaries and devotional reading materials are distributed in facilities as allowed. Volunteers conduct faith enrichment discussion sessions, offer sacramental preparation and, sometimes, individual pastoral counseling when requested.

Once released, inmates, who often have a hard time securing jobs or housing or even food, are provided with assistance from Vermont Catholic Charities, which may mean some help with the first month’s rent, clothing vouchers and grocery cards to help them get a new start.

Reflecting on the ministry, Beigen shared that, for volunteers, “it’s not so much what you say when you get there, but that you’ve made the time to be there, showing up and treating inmates the way you want to be treated. Most of time, when we enter a prison to do God’s work we really find that God has already been there preparing the soil in many ways and we are simply sent there to bring in the harvest. It is about the body of Christ (both volunteers and inmates) at work.”

The art of listening is essential, Deacon Scilla pointed out. “You have to have a good set of ears. You don’t have to have all the answers, because you won’t, but to offer compassion to them — this is something they very much appreciate,” he said.

To learn more about the services Vermont Catholic Charities provides or volunteer opportunities, contact Deacon Scilla at gscilla@vermontcatholic.org or 802-658-6111.

—Originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.