Fr. Charles “Chuck” Canterna began volunteering in the Baltimore prisons in 1980 and was named chaplain of the Baltimore City Jail and Maryland Penitentiary in 1982. Patrick McGovern, a freelance writer from New York City, spoke to him recently about what it’s like to minister to the inmates there.
Prison is not the kind of place that you would expect anyone to associate with beauty. That’s why it’s so surprising to hear Fr. Chuck Canterna describe the work he does with inmates in prison: “When people come to me and talk about how horrible it must be to work in prisons, I just say, ‘Oh man, you don’t know.’ It’s a beautiful ministry. It is absolutely beautiful.”
Of course, it’s not that Fr. Chuck hasn’t witnessed the pain—as well as the guilt and shame—that inmates feel over the choices they have made. Many are unable to forgive themselves. Being identified as just another “prison number” makes them feel even less worthy of any kindness or dignity. Many are rejected by their families and receive no visits or letters while behind bars. They suffer from broken marriages and wounded relationships. They may also suffer knowing the pain they have brought to their victims, their victims’ families, and their own families. And so they cry out to God for help.
“When you deal with a prisoner, it’s hard sometimes because you realize they are also victims,” says Fr. Chuck. “People don’t realize all of the hurt, the sorrow, and the regret inmates can carry. I’m not condoning their actions in any way. But when you speak with them one-on-one and get to know them, you become brothers with them. Yes, you have to deal with the crime they committed, but it often doesn’t match up with the person you have gotten to know. Not at all.”
According to Fr. Chuck, you quickly learn their crime doesn’t define them. They are children of God, and if we were to step into their shoes and try to understand why they did what they did, we would begin to see the brokenness of their lives. That’s where the beauty comes in: you see inmates open their lives to Jesus and to his love, mercy, and forgiveness. You see their lives changing. You see that they are no longer the person they once were. And that’s a beautiful thing.
A Transformative Love. Every day, as he makes his rounds in the hulking downtown buildings making up the Baltimore City Detention Center, Fr. Chuck longs for Christ to be the center of every inmate’s life. He also feels the men’s desire for Christ, and it humbles him when he sees them respond to God’s grace. While love may not be the first word we think of when it comes to life behind bars, Fr. Chuck sees it all around him.
“Whenever prisoners want to know why I care about them, I tell them it’s because Jesus would do this. Jesus would love them,” says Fr. Chuck. He often shares the famous quote from Augustine’s Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” He adds, “These men are restless. They need relief from their sins, their faults, and their failings.”
There are countless examples of prisoners whose lives have been transformed by Jesus’ love for them. For example, when an inmate named Josh heard of a group of men meeting on Tuesday afternoons in his facility, he decided to join them. He was touched by the way the men shared openly about their lives, and he came to realize that God was offering him forgiveness for his crimes, just as these men had experienced. Josh began reading the Bible and absorbing verses like this one, which is now his favorite: “I know well the plans I have in mind for you, . . . plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). Josh felt his guilt and shame washing away and being replaced by a newfound freedom and confidence.
A Miracle at Mass. The men Fr. Chuck sees often don’t know that God wants to give them a new heart—his own heart of love. That’s why prison volunteers and inmates who run Bible studies are so important. “I’ve seen so many lives changed for the better. You may say that prison is horrible or cruel. But so was the suffering Jesus endured on the cross for us. That’s why it’s so good to remember the victory of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.”
One prisoner, a man convicted of bank robbery, experienced what Fr. Chuck considers a miraculous change of heart. As Robert [not his real name] and his friend were fleeing a robbery, his friend was shot and killed by the police. Robert was arrested and sent to prison, where Fr. Chuck met him.
“He was angry. I knew he was hurting,” Fr. Chuck said. “He wanted revenge.” It was obvious to everyone that upon his release, Robert was determined to get back at the officers who had killed his friend.
But then Robert began attending prayer meetings and going to Mass. After three months, he decided to become a Catholic. “You could see him becoming less and less angry,” Fr. Chuck recalls. “Then—and I’ll never forget this—soon after his conversion, he approached me right in the middle of Mass, right after my homily, and said he needed to speak to me right at that moment.”
Robert told Fr. Chuck that he was no longer angry at the police officers who had killed his friend. He no longer wanted to kill them. “He got a new heart,” says Fr. Chuck. “Once he received the Eucharist, there was no turning back.” This man has been transferred to a different prison and is a leader in that prison’s Catholic community. “It was a Eucharistic miracle. He’s a changed man.”
We Can Be His Voice. According to Fr. Chuck, “Prison is a much different setting than the parish. There are just a few volunteers to meet the spiritual needs of hundreds of women and men. There is an openness in the prisoners’ hearts, but Jesus needs us to be his arms, his legs, and his voice. He needs us to have the courage to go into these prisons and talk to the men.”
Fr. Chuck is right. Prison ministry can be beautiful. Prisons are filled with men and women, our brothers and sisters, who are hurting deeply. Whether they know it or not, Jesus is the answer they are seeking. So let’s pray for them. If we can, let’s be Jesus’ hands and feet and join him in the prisons. Even if we never step foot inside a prison, we can still share God’s love with them by our prayers!
To learn more about Fr. Chuck and how God is working in prisons, visit wau.org/changinglives.
Bring Hope behind Bars
Father Chuck brings hope to prisoners as they encounter Jesus in Scripture and in the Eucharist. But many inmates don’t have access to God’s word, and chaplains are few. The Word Among Us Partners responds to God’s call to visit prisoners by providing The Word Among Us to more than 84,000 inmates. In the coming year, we will ensure that The Word Among Us Special Inmate Edition includes the daily Mass readings. But we need your support.
Will you help us?
• $60 sends The Word Among Us with Mass readings to four prisoners for one year.
• Your donation of $100 or more will be matched until September 30.
Make your tax-deductible donation online at our secure website, waupartners.org, by calling 800-775-9673, or by mailing your check to
The Word Among Us Partners
7115 Guilford Drive, Suite 100
Frederick, MD 21704-5234
Box 1107, Station F
Toronto, Ontario M4Y 2T8
(Canadian donations are tax deductible only if sent to this address.)