The Head of the Synodal Department of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church for Cooperation with the Armed Forces and Other Military Units of Ukraine

Archbishop of Lviv and Halychyna of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church


Academic conference: “The Ukrainian cooperative movement”

«Models of social policy in Ukraine and their incorporation into the work of Ukrainian churches»

June, 12


Spiritual and Pastoral Care and Charity in Places of Imprisonment

is an Important Element of the Social Ministry of the Orthodox Church


In the course of its centuries-old history the Orthodox Church inevitably has conducted prison ministry, remembering the commandment of the Savior, “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Mt. 25: 36) Today as never before the Orthodox Church faces the extremely difficult task of mission among all strata of modern society, in particular among those who for various reasons find themselves imprisoned – in prisons and colonies. “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated,” says Saint Paul the Apostle (Heb. 13: 3).


Therefore, the Gospel commands us to visit prisoners. The attitude to this commandment determines the destiny of man in the future eternal life. Through the hearts of prisoners the Lord looks at the heart of every one of us and the way we treat these mistreated, cracked and spiritually crushed people.


Ministry to prisoners is lifted by Christianity to a height unimaginable for other religions. The Lord Jesus Christ compares charity to prisoners with ministry to oneself. This mission is soul-saving both for those who are imprisoned and for those who visit them. The ministry of the Church in prisons is basically of a spiritual and not a social nature; its aim is the salvation and liberation of the prisoner through penitence. The image of the “good thief” shows the example of this penitence. His pains on the cross and sorrows led him to reconsider his past criminal life and brought him into paradise first.


The idea of reformation as one of the tasks applied to prisoners has developed out of the Christian commandment to visit prisoners and care for the salvation of the souls of sinners. Reformation means inner regeneration, transformation of an evil will into a good one, of a sinful will into a righteous one. The means of inner regeneration is the holy Scriptures, as well as moral and religious homilies. Yet in early Christianity we can see the development of such a view: the first Ecumenical (Nicene) Council in 325 established the institute Procuratores Pauperum (care of the poor and miserable), the members of which started visiting prisons, petitions for liberation of the innocent, and in some cases even of the guilty, supplying food and clothing to prisoners, but first of all took up measures for moral and religious reformation. Orthodoxy views imprisonment not as revenge but as a means of inner purification of the prisoner.


Each person is a creature and child of God and each human soul is priceless for the Creator, as the life of our children is priceless for us. The Lord is patient and merciful, He wishes every person to know the truth and be saved. The Orthodox Church bears witness and teaches in prison that any person punished by society receives forgiveness and becomes justified through penitence and reformation. For the Church there are no hopelessly damned, no incorrigible, if only they wish and try to find the truth. The holy Scriptures say: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” (Lk. 18: 27)


For more than 200 years in our state the Church as been participating actively in the process of reformation and waking up penitence in the souls of convicts. Despite the fact that prisons have existed since time immemorial, the state has started the reformation of prisoners only since the beginning of the 18th century. Unfortunately, at the very beginning of the 20th century this tradition was interrupted. But we are not entitled to reject that precious heritage left to us by our predecessors. For many of those things which took place in the past are still valid today.


Recently the activity of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in penitentiary institutions has acquired a more systematic and stable character. The availability of a great number of prisoners requiring spiritual assistance from clergy and the increase in the role of religion in the everyday life of penitentiary institutions requires continuation and strengthening collaboration between the Church and administration of establishments of the State Department for Enforcement of Punishments. Still, the larger is the experience of collaboration, the more explicit are drawbacks significantly reducing the effectiveness of Orthodox mission in places of imprisonment.


Not every priest can assume responsibility for the souls of people who wallowed in sins and imperfections. They need special training as well as extensive organizational and methodological assistance. Criminals are not an easily pliable material. Many convicts have experienced falls and disappointment in themselves and in the eyes of others. They are pressed down with the burden of fault, bitterness, shame, wrath and malignance. This all forms an obstacle to any hope of returning to a better future. Priests working with convicts should know the motives which urged them to commit crimes, their character traits, in order to learn more about their world outlook and regenerate spirituality and morality. At this point the employees of the state department’s establishments can render priceless assistance.


In the opinion of some modern researchers of the penitentiary idea, the conditions of isolation from society promote a most acute perception of basic essential issues: life and death, good and evil, love and hatred, sin and penitence, and so on. That’s why the problem of choice of a world-view basis and the primary religious view of the convict is not farfetched, but vitally important. Such decisions shall be made consciously and on an exclusively voluntary basis (both in choosing a belief and rejecting it). Otherwise there is an actual threat to formalize the operation of religious organizations in state department establishments.


On the whole, the spiritual and moral influence of religion with the human being is great, and in conditions of isolation, in places of imprisonment it acquires even greater significance due to a series of circumstances, and, first of all, due to the psychotherapeutic, compensatory function of religion: its ability to console, soften distress, and act as a moral stimulator of penitence. It is not by chance that the notion of “penitentiary establishment” originates from the Latin penitentia – penitence.


The social and pedagogical function of religious influence consisting in satisfying emotional hunger and preparing for a law-abiding lifestyle is of great importance. The elements of religious education inevitably present in the pastor’s care of the convict not only promote a departure from the criminal way of thinking but also promote the moral purification of the criminal from accumulated imperfections and pernicious habits. Therefore, the general humanitarian influence of religious beliefs with the convict certainly bears beneficial potential, which the collaboration between the state department administration and religious organizations is called to realize in the best traditions and examples of manifestations of philanthropy, mercifulness and charity.


The changes which have taken place in our country can help us reflect on the activity of authorities enforcing penalties in penitentiary establishments of Ukraine. The development of religious life, the activity of various confessions, in particular for the purpose of moral influence with those who are in places of imprisonment, requires subsequent development of the legal, organizational, methodological, psychological and pedagogical provision of this sector. The activity of religious organizations in state department establishments has started developing rather recently, but for this short time in places of imprisonment a new character of social relations has formed, which can be designated as religious (or close to the religious sphere), reflecting the realization of the right of prisoners to freedom of conscience and religion in a certain system of legal relations. They include relations appearing in the line: convicts – religious organizations – administration establishments.


Certainly, the main condition of collaboration between the Church and the state department is compliance with the principles of prisoners’ freedom of religion. The people are not persecuted for their religious convictions, and the state does not any longer create obstacles to expression of religious beliefs and maintenance of religious rites. In the public consciousness and in state policy there took place a re-evaluation of the views on the Church in the direction of acknowledging its positive role in the social environment, the possibility of moral influence with the person and the merits of the Church in the history of the development of the state.


Since the renewal of the activity of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in prisons at the beginning of the 1990s, 15 years have elapsed. Clergy and laity not only visit colonies and prisons, preaching the truth of faith in Christ. They also promote the construction of churches and chapels there, organize spiritual libraries and carry on talks (both with convicts and representatives of the administrations of the establishments), assist (inasmuch as they can) in the supply of various humanitarian aid – food, medicines, and clothing to prisons and colonies. All this work promotes strengthening the Orthodox Church in establishments of the state department, and in this way the clergy gradually takes a due place in this system – the place of the soul, the spiritual heart, which in a special way unites the employees of establishments with convicts and their relatives and bring all of them to Christ, though in a different manner.


The Synodal Department for Cooperation with the Armed Forces and Other Military Units of Ukraine is called to coordinate the activity of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in establishments of the State Department. This synodal authority establishes all-church ministry structures in places of imprisonment, aims at strengthening the connection between efforts in this domain made on-site and the care of the Church hierarchy for each prisoner and employee of the State Department. The main trends of operation of the department for prisoners are:

- representation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in its relations with the administration and various services of the State Department;

- Orthodox mission among prisoners, first of all among persons baptized in the Orthodox Church;

- notifying the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church about events and actions taking place in the State Department which are of interest to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.


An important part of the department’s activity is interaction with administration of the State Department for Enforcement of Punishments. Its management promotes the construction of churches, organization of rooms of prayer, as well as the work of priests among convicts, because such work, according to their responses, significantly improves the psychological atmosphere in penitentiary establishments and promotes reformation of convicts. And here is the meeting point of the efforts of prison priests and experts in social work and social pedagogy. The organization of social services requires professional knowledge which is not always sufficient in the church environment. That’s why social maintenance, domestic and labor order, psychological adaptation, as well as a set of actions required for the valid return of the person to society should be provided by specialists and put into practice together with church organizations.


For many decades the Orthodox Church was violently deprived of the opportunity to conduct social ministry and provide assistance to the poor, needy and miserable. Now the situation has changed, but it is insufficient. Each parish should be a center of social ministry in the domain of providing assistance to the destitute. Each parishioner can participate in it in terms of his/her abilities. Yet according to the Zemsky Statutes of Prince Volodymyr, social care for the poor and needy was entrusted to the clergy. The very notion of an almshouse expresses the essence of this extremely important ministry – “bogodelanie,” the acts of God. For ministry to the poor, disabled, and destitute can be compared with the main vocation of a human being – religious service according to the words of the Lord, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mt. 25: 35-36, 40)


The work of God – that’s how one can describe the whole meaning of the difficult work of the social worker. We all see in what a difficult situation our Ukraine is. Social problems for us are not abstract issues, the solution of which can be postponed; it is the pain and suffering of people living in our neighborhood, created for the joy of the Kingdom of God. And it is the employee of the State Department for Social, Educational and Psychological Work who brings comfort and life in this domain of human suffering, solitude and pain with his mission. Today we have to develop our collaboration in all dimensions. Today, as well as in ancient times, both the colony employee and priest should work, comforting and giving hope, purifying the soul and taking care of the re-socialization of convicts.


Let’s recall the words of a renowned modern professor and priest, Glib Kalyeda: “Our prisons, our camps, our convicts always remain with us, like our bleeding and festering wounds. And it is up to us to heal them.” We shall solve these issues of healing in the course of our collaboration. The holy Scriptures teach us that it is only compliance with the blessed commandments of God which is capable of providing humanity with reliable prospects for salvation. Our Church always bears witness to humanity – both to the powers that be and to simple people, that without God and compliance with His commandments no earthly goods and powers will bring true happiness, spiritual harmony and the desired fullness of being. The social and moral guidelines of humanity now, as ever, shall correspond to the saving commandments of God.


Let’s perform merciful deeds every day, supporting each other, helping each other, deriving strength from the rich history of our homeland. This is the main guarantee of the fact that the good traditions of our righteous ancestors will receive due continuation, and that the present difficulties and misfortunes of Ukraine will end up in power and glory.