Development of prison catechesis program draws strong support
By Jonah McKeown
Houston, Texas, Nov 17, 2019 / 03:05 am (CNA).- It took a Catholic evangelist just three days to raise the funds online for an apologetics and faith formation curriculum to distribute to prisons— a place where he says Biblical apologetics are sorely needed.
Michael Gormley, host of the podcast “Catching Foxes” and adult faith formation director for St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in the Houston area, told CNA that the goal of the curriculum is to weave the Gospel message with apologetics and catechesis.
“There’s such a need for Biblical apologetics [in prison],” he said.
“The majority of people are leaving the Catholic faith either for an anti-Catholic fundamentalist Christian faith, or for Islam. Islam is mostly big in the jails…and we have almost zero presence in jails. And it’s shocking, it’s just shocking.”
Gormley said the goal is to adapt a faith formation series that he originally created for Ascension Press.
He said he hopes to adapt the series to be more relevant to men and women in prison, offering instruction for those who want to learn more about Catholicism about how to frame their lives around Christian discipleship. He said he hopes to reach inmates who have already been inspired by prison ministry volunteers to say, “I’m interested in this Catholic thing, what’s next?”
“My hope is to be able to pull out a coherent curriculum from beginning to end, chopping the videos up and maybe adding new things into the mix as we go,” he said.
Gormley said the opportunity recently came “out of nowhere” to buy the rights to the series from Ascension, so he launched a GoFundMe page to raise the $10,000 necessary— and it took him only three days to reach the initial goal.
In fact, it only took one minute of the fundraiser being live for one donor to offer $5,000— half the funds needed.
Gormley stressed that although the campaign had reached its initial funding goal, the GoFundMe is still accepting donations because more is still needed to allow the project to continue.
Any additional funds beyond those used to buy the rights to the series, he said, will go directly to printing DVDs— Internet-based videos aren’t an option for prisons— as well as for workbooks and other production costs.
“On top of your donation dollars to all your different nonprofits, and churches, and charities, really keep an eye to prison ministries,” he said.
He said there are around 110 prison units in Texas, but only one full-time Catholic chaplain.
Gormley said he goes with a group to a prison every Monday, offering a few hours of instruction and catechesis as well as a Communion service for the Catholic inmates. He said working with inmates has changed the way that he, an educator in the faith and an evangelist, goes about sharing his faith.
“It totally changed how I do everything in my life. From being a dad, to teaching my faith, living as a witness, evangelization, it turbocharged everything, because you see grace working right in front of your eyes.”
Gormley told CNA last month that the first time he went on a retreat at a prison, through a group called Kolbe Prison Ministries, he went to a maximum security unit in Texas.
The Jim Ferguson Unit, located in Midway, Texas, has a maximum capacity of 2,100 men and mainly houses violent and gang-affiliated prisoners.
Gormley said he remembers showing up for his first retreat at 5:00 in the morning, and he and his fellow participants prayed the prayer to St. Michael before going inside because they had heard that a group of “Satanist” inmates were cursing them and their ministry.
“When you walk into these prisons, you realize you’re going in to serve, at least in my case, violent offenders, many of whom are of the population where there’s a high recidivism rate,” he said.
“The beautiful thing about prison ministry, at least from my limited experience, is that 2 hours into the actual retreat, I was shocked at how mundane everything was,” he continued.
“There were guys that were super talkative, guys that were disengaged, guys who were listening and quiet, guys that were dominating the conversation, and everything in between, just like a normal men’s retreat. And it was that…the men quickly became very normal in my eyes from the labels that they were beforehand.”
The vast majority of the inmates participating in the retreats, he said, are non-Catholic, and he said a significant majority of those non-Catholics are “fiercely anti-Catholic.”
A large number of Latino inmates that Gormley has encountered, who may have grown up Catholic, are now “extremely anti-Catholic,” he said.
The retreats are based on testimonies that are tied to larger themes, he said. In his role as a table facilitator at the retreats, Gormley leads discussions and often fields questions and challenges from inmates about aspects of the Catholic faith.
“Every single story is insane, amazing, sad, heartrending,” he commented.
Every single man he met in the unit, with one exception, had inadequate fathers, whether by neglect, abandonment, abuse, or a combination. Almost every one of the men joined gangs, because “if they didn’t have fathers, they needed brothers.” Most of the men were abandoned by the gangs they joined, too, he said.
Gormley related the story of a man in the Ferguson Unit who had joined a white supremacist gang before being locked up.
At one of the prison retreats, the inmate stood up and told the other men at the prison that he was sorry for getting into fights with his black and Latino prison mates, because he realized on a prison retreat a year ago that he didn’t hate people of different races— he hated his father, who had abandoned him years earlier.
He said he forgave his father a year ago, and then asked the other prisoners to forgive him. An African-American inmate then stood up and gave the man a hug, amid tears and applause from the other inmates.
“The whole rest of the retreat was like that, stories like that,” Gormley said.