Dunedin Bishop Michael Dooley baptised a prisoner inside the Otago Corrections Facility on December 9, in what was a moving ceremony witnessed by prison staff, inmates and Catholic volunteers.
Otago prison chaplain Daniel Rooney said it was the first Baptism in the South Island prison and the ceremony went very well.
Mr Rooney said the inmate had been in and out of prison since age 17. The chaplain said the inmate is now 38 years old.
Mr Rooney said the man approached him back in February asking for a book he (the inmate) could read. “I told him a white lie. I said we only have the Bible,” Mr Rooney said.
This was the start, though, of a relationship between the man and God.
“He asked me what Catholics believed and so I gave him the booklets from the Catholic Enquiry Centre. After reading those, he asked me to teach him how to pray. A month or two later, he came back to me to say, ‘I think I need to be baptised’,” Mr Rooney added.
The chaplain said this process from some other inmates who only became “religious” because they needed to look good.
“It’s pretty fair to say that I’ve been approached by people asking for Baptism because they are about to approach the Parole Board and it’s not genuine. They want to look good on their file,” he said.
Mr Rooney said when he told this inmate the process is going to take some time, the inmate said to him, “that’s OK. I know it’s part of my growing”.
For the better part of the year, Mr Rooney would give the prisoner daily Scripture readings and other material. They would discuss and ponder the message of the Gospel and the inmate would come back with deep insights.
“We talked about steps in his life that led him to prison, things that have gone well and things that have gone bad. And during those periods, there’s often been a welling up of emotion,” Mr Rooney said. “One of the things he continues to say is, ‘this has been something that I think is missing in my life’.”
Bishop Dooley’s homily reflected on John the Baptist’s call for repentance and making the crooked paths straight.
“The bishop talked about Baptism making us closer to Christ as we move forward in celebrating his coming,” Mr Rooney added.
After the Baptism, the inmate gave Mr Rooney a big hug.
“He was moved to tears in front of everybody which is quite a big thing in the prison,” Mr Rooney said.
The prisoner was given a baptismal certificate and a Bible. He told Mr Rooney that it felt right and it was like coming home.
He said the inmate is looking forward to being confirmed in the faith once he (the inmate) is released in the near future. Being welcomed into a parish is also something to look forward to.
Mr Rooney said one exciting thing that is happening in prison is that the inmate is talking to other inmates about his (the prisoner’s) newfound faith.
“We do a lot of reconnecting people with their family, with their faith . . . ultimately, reconnecting people with God,” Mr Rooney said.
“Through this process, we met a lot of Catholics on the inside. We’ve got five inside at the moment who are now able to mix somewhat and make some connections,” he said.
Mr Rooney said he came home with a buzz. “Chaplaincy is difficult for me to succeed in. I consider this a success,” he said.
He added Christmas is a tough time at the prison because the inmates “tend to feel sort of hopeless and useless on the inside”.
Last Christmas, Mr Rooney was able to get a donation of 8000 Christmas cards to the prisoners so that they can write to their families.
“The Salvation Army Brass Band also performed on December 23 for the prisoners,” he said.