Visit the Imprisoned

Online Lesson:

These online lessons may be used:
• by individuals anytime, anywhere.
• in group settings — families, faith sharing groups, faith formation programs, and schools.
• in “flipped” classroom situations for people to view before meeting face to face.
You may just want to use a suggested video, story, or question — in anyway that helps us recognize that God’s mercy is anytime, anywhere, and we are called to be merciful as well.

The structure of the lesson is based on Msgr. Francis Kelly’s Ecclesial Method.

Step 1 – Preparation: Each lesson will begin with a video and prayer to help us focus on the Works of Mercy in General.

Works of Mercy Reflection:

What gift do you have that can be put to the service of others?
Can your small group use Animoto, Magisto, or some other video creation tool
to create your own Works of Mercy video?

Merciful God,

You have created us to love You with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Yet we are often imprisoned in some way that prevents us from being as loving as we should be. Keep us mindful of those of us who are imprisoned physically, spiritually and psychologically. Give us the strength to reach out to those who are shackled in some way, and the courage to be open to those who call us to a freedom from our own bonds.

Step 2 – Proclamation: Each lesson will repeat the Works of Mercy to help us remember them.

The Spiritual Works of Mercy:

The Spiritual Works of mercy are acts of compassion, as listed below, by which we help our neighbors with their emotional and spiritual needs.

Counsel the doubtful
Instruct the ignorant
Admonish sinners
Comfort the afflicted
Forgive all offenses/injury
Bear wrongs patiently
Pray for the living and the dead

The Corporal Works of Mercy:

The Corporal Works of mercy are these kind acts by which we help our neighbors with their material and physical needs.

Shelter the homeless/Welcome the stranger
Feed the hungry
Give drink to the thirsty
Clothe the naked
Visit the sick
Visit the imprisoned
Bury the dead

Step 3 – Explanation: This step will address a specific Work of Mercy.

This Month: Visit the Imprisoned

All of the Works of Mercy boil down to this: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. (1 Jn 4:11)”

The Works of Mercy provide ways in which we can love better. The common theme throughout them is the continuance of our journey from self-centeredness to other-centeredness. The Reign of God is made more present as we are more attentive to others in their needs.

Visiting the Literally Imprisoned

Visiting the Imprisoned is a very challenging work in our culture. Below we will explore imprisonment metaphorically, but literal imprisonment deserves attention as well. In his blog, As I See It,  Msgr. Vincent Rush posts:

This Holy Work has changed its meaning over time.  The first Christians were, as you know, outlaws; so it was expected that some of their number would be in prison at any given time.  Jesus was a prisoner; Paul was; Peter was; and many of the saints, bishops, and teachers of the first few centuries of Christian life were.  So free Christians took it upon themselves to visit their friends, bringing food, solace, encouragement, and when possible liberation.  They also sought the prisoners’ blessing, since to be imprisoned for being a Christian was a mark of great courage and faith.

These days things are different, at least in our part of the world.  (Christians continue to be imprisoned and even executed for their faith in the Middle East, in China, in Pakistan, in North Korea and in other countries.)  People in prison are there as the result of a judgment by a criminal-justice system that, while by no means perfect, does make them different from the Christian prisoners of Jesus’ day.  And modern prisons are not, by and large, visit-able places.  So how are we to understand this Holy Work today?

We might start by remembering that even the prisoner guilty of the most awful crime is still created in God’s image and is loved by God no less than God loves you or me.

-Fr. Vincent Rush
The Corporal Works of Mercy (4): To Visit the Imprisoned

Nothing helps us understand someone else better than a story. Karen Imholte shares a little of her story as an educator in the prison system, and a little bit of a story of one of her students. With a little tough love, Karen (and his Grandmother) empowered him to take a college level course that changed his life.

Describe a time someone challenged you with tough love.
How were you transformed in ways you never thought possible?
Did you regret that it took so long to enter into the transformation?

Another way of journeying with the imprisoned, if not visiting them directly, is to learn about the dynamics of incarceration so that we can be aware of, and address, unhealthy systemic issues. Fr. Vin continues:

Along with the protection of society from truly dangerous individuals, one goal of imprisonment should always be rehabilitation so that the “lost” can be “found” and restored to a right relationship with God and others.  But this costs money – for addiction treatment, for education, and for other aids to rehabilitation that are too-easily disposed of in times of budget cuts.  And these programs do serve both society and prisoners – a recent study from California showed that both incarceration rates and crime dropped as rehabilitation increased.[1]

-Fr. Vincent Rush
The Corporal Works of Mercy (4): To Visit the Imprisoned

We are all victims of the deeds of criminals, even if it is just the climate of fear we experience when humans are violated. But how are we engaged with initiatives that make crime less likely to happen? This is a case where we cannot really change anyone but ourselves. How do we change ourselves and our system to affect positive change in others? Can we, in a sense, walk with ‘criminals’ by being proactively engaged in activities that prevent their crimes from ever happening in the first place?

Educating ourselves about the facts of imprisonment in the U.S. is a good step. Again from Fr. Vin:

The population of state and federal prisons grew by over 600% between 1972 and 1998;

We imprison only a slightly lower proportion of our population than Russia, which has the highest rate in the world (we’re #2);

Half of all inmates are African-American; one out of every three young African-American males is in prison, on probation, or on parole;

Between 1970 and 1996 the number of women in U.S. prisons grew from about 5,600 to almost 75,000, a thirteenfold increase; most of these women were arrested for nonviolent crimes.[2]

The U.S. bishops have called for reform.  Their analysis and proposals are available on the web [note: their section on mission is digested below].[3]

We have to be careful not to allow our thinking about prison and prisoners (when we think about them at all) to be influenced by scaremongering to win votes (a not-unknown political phenomenon).

-Fr. Vincent Rush
The Corporal Works of Mercy (4): To Visit the Imprisoned


The analysis and proposals of the U.S. Bishops includes a section on the mission of the Church. How are we sent forth to address and act on this issue? Here is an encapsulation:

1.    Teach right from wrong, respect for life and the law, forgiveness and mercy

… Catholic institutions that offer programs for youth and young adult ministry—including Catholic schools, Catholic Charities, and St. Vincent De Paul agencies—are bulwarks against crime, by providing formation for young people, enrichment and training for parents, counseling and alternatives for troubled children and families, and rehabilitative services for former inmates.

2.    Stand with victims and their families

…Pastors and parish ministers must be prepared to respond quickly and effectively.

3.    Reach out to offenders and their families, advocate for more treatment, and provide for the pastoral needs of all involved

… We know that faith has a transforming effect on all our lives. Therefore, rehabilitation and restoration must include the spiritual dimension of healing and hope.

4.    Build community

… The Catholic Campaign for Human Development supports many creative efforts to prevent crime and rebuild community.

5.    Advocate policies that help reduce violence, protect the innocent, involve the victims, and offer real alternatives to crime

… We must advocate on behalf of those most vulnerable to crime (the young and the elderly), ensure community safety, and attack the leading contributors to crime, which include the breakdown of family life, poverty, the proliferation of handguns, drug and alcohol addiction, and the pervasive culture of violence.”

 6.    Organize diocesan and state consultations

… We encourage diocesan leaders to convene similar processes of engagement and dialogue with those involved in the system: crime victims, former inmates, jail chaplains, judges, police officers, community leaders, prosecutors, families of victims and offenders, and others.”

 7.    Work for new approaches

… We also hope many others will join with them in efforts to prevent crime, reach out to victims, offer ministry and rehabilitation in our prisons, help to re-integrate ex-offenders, and advocate for new approaches.”

Visiting the Metaphorically Imprisoned

Fr. Vin concludes:

We can also extend the meaning of the Holy Work to consider those who are imprisoned metaphorically in other places: the elderly isolated in nursing-homes (or their own homes); people imprisoned by their addictions or their fears or their ignorance; people imprisoned by others’ views of them (immigrants, non-English speakers, people with disabilities…)  The Holy Work of visiting the imprisoned can be as simple as a welcome that breaks down the wall of mistrust.  That, each of us has opportunities to do every day.  Until next week, peace

Fr. Vin Rush
Pastor’s Parish Blog “As I See It

Although the concept of using “visiting the imprisoned” as a metaphor is probably more comfortable to many of us than the issue literally taken, the challenges are formidable indeed. It is as simple… and as deep and demanding… as love. It is about making present the Reign of God that Jesus proclaimed. And he knew what it took.

Step 4 – Application and Appropriation into Life is the bridge between head knowledge and daily living as a disciple of Christ.

Faith in Action:

How do we reflect God’s love to those in prison? One formal initiative taken on locally is the Central Minnesota Residents Encounter Christ (REC) effort. It is a three part retreat over two days that invites participants to die with Christ, rise with Christ, and go forth to spread the Good News.

This video was created with an iPhone, edited in iMovie and uploaded to YouTube.
Parishes/Schools can create such resources themselves for free.
Unless there is a relative in prison, visiting inmates can be problematic. REC provides one avenue whereby we can show God’s love to them. Plus, as Jill Lieser suggests in the preceding video, we can ‘visit’ REC participants spiritually as we pray for them from home. More information can be viewed at REC’s website.

Reflection Questions:

Have you, or someone you know, ever spent time in prison? What did “visiting the imprisoned” mean at that time?

List some ways people are metaphorically imprisoned. What does “visiting the imprisoned” mean in those cases?

What are proactive ways we can change ourselves, and therefore our society, to prevent imprisonment from happening?

Suggested Activities (add your suggestions below):


  • Call your local jail/prison to ask if it is appropriate to donate some Bibles to inmates. Ask about creating bookmarks with verses of encouragement.

Parish and School:

  • Study statistics about the relationship between poverty and both literal and metaphorical imprisonment. Pray specifically for the imprisoned and their families as your students work on your next clothing, food or toy drive.

Step 5 – Celebration: Lessons will close with a prayer, silent or communally, that gives glory to God.

Closing Prayer:

Tender God,

You have created all of us in Your image, even those who are at the margins of society. Give us Your Spirit of Love that, as a Communion, we will create a culture in which no one would choose a path leading to imprisonment. Give us Your Spirit of Courage to find ways of walking with others, even outside of our comfort zones. Remind us that, in helping to make Your kingdom present, we must attend to those who are vulnerable in many ways as we pray the words Your Son gave to us:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread;

and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us;

and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.


In the “Leave a Reply” area below, please suggest another activity people could do to address this Work of Mercy, share a story about someone who visits the imprisoned, or write your own prayer for people in such need.


Author: Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is the editor of The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

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