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Fall Ministries - Chaplains

Workers always serving in ‘an area of pain’


Wanted: Prison Chaplain.” Ads like this have appeared on Web sites and in newspapers and magazines. Dominican Sr. Susan VanBaalen has even gone directly to seminaries and schools of theology to fill the shortage.

Requirements are a master of divinity or equivalent degree from an accredited institution and a minimum two years of pastoral experience, ordination or membership in a religious congregation. A degree in clinical pastoral education is also highly recommended, said VanBaalen, who directs the chaplaincy services in the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington.

The bureau staffs 220 chaplain’s posts at its 96 federal prisons with a population of 140,000 inmates. Two-thirds of the prisons have a full-time Catholic chaplain; of the 60 Catholic chaplains about 50 are priests, the rest nuns, she said. A great need exists for Spanish-speaking chaplains conversant with Latino culture.

Finding chaplains is hard, because the job is “so emotionally and physically draining. You’re always working in an area of pain,” VanBaalen said. Even so, many chaplains serve 20 years. The priest shortage also affects recruitment, although the bishops have been generous in releasing men to do prison ministry, she said. Each year chaplains invite their local bishop to visit the federal prison in their see. Dozens of bishops have visited inmates, she said.

VanBaalen, who began her prison ministry as a volunteer, holds a master’s degree from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.

The personal touch that prisoners get from chaplains and their staff of volunteers helps to alleviate “the deep sadness and emptiness that inmates experience because they feel they’re not a part of anything wholesome,” VanBaalen said.

Last year some 181,000 programs were offered through the Pastoral Care Department of the Bureau of Prisons, including worship services, choirs, Bible study, catechumenate, Renew, rosary and meditation. “I’ve seen inmates of all faiths reclaim their tradition,” said VanBaalen. “That’s very heartening for me.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000