Chicago Inside the justice system
A Faith that Does Justice
For the past 19 years, Father Peter Breslin, S.J., has traveled from Chicago to Waukegan, Illinois, on Sundays to minister to a small group of people. As he drives, he often ruminates over what God might want these individuals to hear. After two decades of visits, his educated guess is that God would choose a message of hope, redemption, and conversion. For Breslin, it is about intentionally turning away from the things in a person’s life that are not life-giving.
On his Sunday visits to Waukegan, Breslin says Mass and discusses Scripture with people he describes as possessing deep spirituality and faith—the inmates of Lake County Jail. Breslin, a clinical professor of biology at Loyola University Chicago, is part of Lake County’s Inmate Religious Volunteer program, which seeks to combat recidivism and has attracted more than 200 volunteers from 22 different religious organizations. According to the Lake County Jail, it can hold more than 700 individuals and often detains more than 8,000 people over the course of a year.
At the jail, Breslin routinely ministers to a group of about 50 to 80 people, saying a Mass in both English and Spanish, along with a prayer service. Working with deacons and laypeople, he alternates between visiting the men’s and women’s unit every other visit.
In the United States, according the Bureau of Justice, nearly 2.2 million adults were in prisons and jails at the end of 2016. And, many of the institutions these men and women occupy rarely provide hope or comprehensive rehabilitation services. In turn, incarcerated individuals face many barriers when they are released—from securing employment and housing to reintegrating into their communities and families.
“Prison walls can keep people in and keep people out—I want to keep them connected with their family on the outside. We hope to inspire each person that comes to us in different ways.”— Father Peter Breslin, S.J.
Prison ministry is an important part of the Catholic Church’s outreach. The goal of Breslin’s ministry is to communicate a message of hope and conversion and to lift people up, but the conversations he has with those in jail are not one-sided.
“They have increased my hope and my strength to deal with difficult things in my life,” Breslin said. “God is always willing to forgive and put the past behind. I remind them of that, and in turn remind myself.”
Breslin encourages those who are incarcerated to pray, which he sees as a helpful connection with the outside world. It is also an important part of the total rehabilitation process—in addition to GED classes, addiction services, arts programs, behavioral therapy, and more.
Breslin views his prison ministry as a natural element of the University’s mission, as well as an important connection to the wider community. “I always make sure the inmates know my connection to Loyola,” he said. He is happy to represent the University, and as a minister at the jail he draws upon his Ignatian spirituality to present the ideal of finding God in all things and all places. On Sundays, he is sure to let the inmates of Lake County Jail know that he finds God in them.
“How can I present God’s love to them in a way that is real, that is concrete, and that is inspiring?" he said. “If I can do that, I feel that I am accomplishing my mission to bring good news to the people who need it the most—which includes those people who are incarcerated, many of whom are poor and haven’t had the advantage of education that Loyola students have.”