Be not afraid
Father Walters brings compassion to prison inmates
By Wendy A. Hoke
“For I was in prison, and you visited me.” Matthew 26: 35-36
Growing up in St. Luke’s Parish in Lakewood Father Neil Walters lived a comfortable life around his siblings and his parents who owned a metal stamping business. He went to John Carroll University as a business major, but remained uncertain of his future.
“Sitting in classes I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ ” he said over lunch at Abby’s Diner across from the Justice Center downtown, where three days a week he serves as chaplain to prisoners in the Cuyahoga County Jail.
God and religion were always a big part of his life. His mother’s uncle was a priest and former rector of the seminary. Gradually and without any earth-shaking epiphany, he began to discern a calling to serve in the priesthood. “I wanted to work with the poorest of the poor,” he said.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do short of helping others. A lot of my work is unplanned but, with God’s help, has been satisfying.”
Ordained in 1989, his first assignment was in Wooster, which he describes as “a little oasis in the desert. I think I was on a high those first five years,” he said. Gradually, he found himself moving closer to Cleveland at parishes in Akron, Euclid and now Garfield Heights.
As a seminarian, Father Walters, who today serves as parochial vicar at St. Therese Parish, Garfield Heights, had the opportunity to visit inmates. Throughout his years as a diocesan priest, he would be asked to visit inmates on behalf of parishioners.
When he arrived at St. Felicitas in Euclid in the late 1990s, he saw a television program about prison inmates and was inspired to make a call to the Cuyahoga County Jail. It took about six months for him to hear back, but finally he was invited to visit.
The chaplain who was there left after two weeks and was never replaced. Bit by bit, Father Walters filled his shoes. Today he does a series of religious services and Masses, hears confessions, and shares reading materials (and reading glasses), including Bibles, spiritual texts and addiction and recovery resources with the inmates. Mostly, he provides comfort and compassion for those marginalized by shame, violence, addiction and hopelessness.
“Often you catch them at their worst. But there is always hope,” he said.
“If you have time, I’d like you to hear my confession later,” said a tough-talking female inmate who claims she has 17 felony drug convictions and has never once been offered treatment. She breaks down in tears during the first reading and is unable to finish. Father Walters hands her a package of tissues as another inmate finishes the reading.
Mass here is a little different. “We have a great need for healing,” said Father Walters, who anoints the women following the penitential rite. The homily is followed with a gut-wrenching sharing of emotions, fears and regret by the eight inmates gathered on this afternoon.
While priests have been visiting inmates throughout time, it wasn’t until the Jubilee Year in 2000 that Pope John Paul II recommended a ministry to the incarcerated. While he has been involved prior to then, Father Walters has been a consistent part of that work ever since.
Bishop Richard Lennon made his first visit to the prison for a Mass in mid-December. He also spent some time talking to two of the inmates.
But it’s Father Walter’s regular presence upon which the inmates depend.
“Father Neil doesn’t judge, degrade or demoralize us,” said the female inmate with the many drug convictions. “People here relate to him because he listens.”
“We tried to get to church all day today. Thank you for coming here,” said another female inmate in the medical floor. They missed the afternoon Mass. Father Walters learns that the guards did not come for them. He raises his eyebrows, wrinkling his forward and said it is the same struggle he has every week.
In his trail running shoes, black Levi’s and clerical collar, he pulls out his chrism of anointing oil and his consecrated hosts to share with the women here and those on the mental health floor. Everywhere he goes, more ask to be put on the list to receive Catholic services.
The job is never-ending and after eight years, he’s still energized by the work.
“What keeps me motivated is that I believe we need God and religion now more than ever, especially here. No matter where you live or what parish you call home, there are people who are touched by the prison system. My work here in many ways is an extension of my work with parishioners.”
Hoke is a freelance writer.
Friday, January 11, 2008
Latest UB story: Be not afraid
In today's Catholic Universe Bulletin is the following story about Father Neil Walters, who has a prison ministry at Cuyahoga County Jail. Also, the St. Ignatius pallbearer society story in online here.