As Catholics, we are challenged by our faith to look into the faces of the marginalized, and to see the light of God shining back at us. Our culture, though, seems to revel in blame and punishment.
Father Christian Reuter, OFM, knows well the cycle of violence, and, over the last 13 years, has promoted an alternative approach through his work in prison ministry.
A St. Louis native, Father Chris had relatives on both sides of his family who were Franciscans, members of the Sacred Heart Province. Inspired by his faith and his family, Father Chris entered a Franciscan seminary right out of eighth grade.
Even the Franciscan robes had a special appeal to the young seminarian. “Initially, I was attracted by the brown Franciscan habit with its hood and white cord—much ‘cooler’ than a black diocesan cassock,” he says lightheartedly.
Of course, there was more to the story. After being ordained as a priest in 1966, Father Chris served for 35 years in the Archdiocese of Chicago as a teacher and, later, as principal of Hales Franciscan High School.
Serving a predominantly African American Catholic community in the Archdiocese of Chicago, Father Chris was also the pastor of Corpus Christi Parish. His experience in education in the inner city of Chicago gave Father Chris a unique, albeit challenging, glimpse into the criminal justice system.
“Church ministry in that environment often took me into police stations, courtrooms, prisons, and parole hearings,” he says. In 2002, after “a long discernment,” Father Chris switched gears and got involved with prison ministry.
A New Phase
At the invitation of the then-bishop of Belleville, Wilton Gregory (now archbishop of Atlanta), Father Chris arrived in East St. Louis, Illinois, to start this new phase of his life as a priest. East St. Louis sits in the unfortunate position of number one on the FBI’s 2014 list of the 100 most dangerous cities in the United States.
“[I] came to East St. Louis precisely because it fit the description of ideal Franciscan ministry— poor, crime-ridden, overlooked, and abandoned by both Church and society,” Father Chris explains.
When he first started out in prison ministry, Father Chris was a little daunted by the grim setting of his work and the barrenness of prison chapels—often populated only by a table and a few chairs.
But, as he performed chaplain ministry in seven prisons across southern Illinois, he found that being caring and respectful toward prisoners injected light into an otherwise dreary place.
The Power of Forgiveness
Reconciliation is crucial to prison ministry, though it can be extremely difficult to nurture within a criminal justice system Father Chris considers “broken.” In our current system, “debts are never entirely forgiven, and people are caught in an endless cycle of vengeance and violence. Franciscan theology offers a way out of this.”
As his experience in prison ministry has grown, Father Chris has taken on a more administrative role, coordinating about 50 clergy and laypeople in the Belleville Diocese.
No matter what facet of prison ministry he is involved in, Father Chris has always kept in mind a quote from Luke 10:5 (repeated in the Rule of the Franciscan Order), where Jesus advises his followers to say, “Peace to this house,” whenever they enter a home.
“I say it every time I pass through the bars and razor wire of a prison gatehouse.”