Some 700,000 prisoners are being held in the 755 prisons and labor camps throughout the vast territory of the Russian Federation. One of the priests doing prison pastoral work is Father Igor Pokrovskij. He recently reported on the beginnings of this apostolate in Nizhny Novgorod: He told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need: "When we started our pastoral work in the prison in 1998 we only had a small room in the washhouse to pray in. We bought some paint and coated the walls. Prisoners who were artistically talented then painted icons on the walls. In a separate chamber I heard confession.
“I soon noticed many changes in the souls. Six months later a group of them already met separately for morning and evening prayers. When I came on Sunday to celebrate the Holy Liturgy they had prepared themselves for confession and Holy Communion during the week by fasting and praying." Prisoners are also responsible for sexton duties and maintaining order in the chapel. This is a task that demands a high degree of dependability.
The most important challenge in prison pastoral work is in his experience to get the prisoners to confess their guilt in order to change their lives effectively. Many are afraid to admit their crime even to the priest. "Then I say to them: ‘I am God's witness, not a public prosecutor.’ I have the authority to absolve you of your sins in His name. But to enable me to do this you must confess your guilt before God. This is essential if your soul is to be healed from sin."
The prison where Father Igor works now has a proper chapel. In the course of time the priest has baptized almost 400 prisoners. He doesn't know exactly how many. Many of the former prison inmates Father Igor cared for over the years have now been released. He is still in contact with many of them. He has married them and baptized their children, and many come to church Sunday after Sunday.
"We had someone here from a local authority who was serving time for corruption. He had previously been hostile to the Church. If someone wanted to build a place of worship in his district, he would refuse permission. Since his release he has been seen regularly at divine service."
Some people who have successfully built up a new career also support the Church financially and have become genuine benefactors. Others show their affection in the form of small gestures: "We had someone in the prison – his name was Aleksandr – who was serving time for manslaughter. He was also a talented artist. Aleksandr was converted in prison and was released early for good conduct. He married, moved to a village, now has three children and every year at Christmas he brings me two geese."
There are also prisoners who only come to the chapel to obtain a certificate of good conduct or other advantages. But they can't pull the wool over this experienced priest's eyes: "I recognize such people straight away. You can see that they are deceitful." Father Igor even had a case where an inmate threatened to kill him. But basically his experience has been positive: "In fact many people who have offended are well disposed towards the Church. In my experience, in their sin they think a lot about the meaning of life. People whose lives run smoothly often think they don't need God." Although it may appear surprising at first glance, it's what Jesus said in the Gospel: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick."
Father Igor regrets that some people who in fact have many talents and gifts which they could employ for the good of society go off the rails and make wrongful use of their intelligence and abilities. He attributes this to the spiritual vacuum which reigns in many people. The time in prison with pastoral care is an opportunity for many to find their way back to the right path.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)