Pen Pal Program Adjusts To Meet Need
It’s a normal stage of the program for third-year theology students at St. Vincent DePaul Regional Seminary, Boynton Beach, Florida. The seminarians, who are preparing for the diaconate, are supposed to go into the field—prison, juvenile detention centers, hospitals, nursing homes and parishes—as part of their pastoral formation. However, because of the pandemic, the seminarians have not been able to serve in the traditional way. Deacon Gregory Quinn, Director of Prison Ministry for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Palm Beach, came up with a solution. “I suggested to the Dean of Pastoral Formation, Rev. George Nursey, that the seminarians participate in the Order of Malta Pen Pal Program,” he said.
The Pen Pal Program arranges for members of the Order to correspond with prison inmates. In 2019, Deacon Quinn was introduced to the Pen Pal Program by Bill Mattison, who is a long-time member of the Order. It was Bill’s intention to broaden the number of participants in the diocese to write to prisoners. Great timing! Because, by the time the pandemic hit, an additional 20 lay persons were already participating.
The seminarians’ version of the Pen Pal program differs slightly from that of the Order of Malta’s. First, the seminarians are assigned to write a letter every week. Also, as a pastoral-formation program requires evaluation, Deacon Quinn reads every letter going to and from the inmates. “The letters are developing skills for these budding deacons, skills similar to what they will need when they become deacons or priests” he said.
As much as the training is useful for the seminarians, the Pen Pal Program helps the inmates in even more profound ways. The correspondence might contain ideas of books to read or compassion for an inmate recovering from Covid-19. The Order of Malta suggests letter writers send a picture of a pastoral scene to the prison pen pal. So if a seminarian has gone on a hike, he might take a photo of the area he hiked in. That may sound like a small thing to us, but it means a lot to an inmate. “The responses from the prisoners are incredible,” Deacon Quinn said. “They may have been in lockdown for months and say, ‘You’re the first person I’ve heard from the outside. Thank you so much.’”
The program has been so successful that the seminary is planning to run it again next. year. Said Deacon Quinn: “You can’t put words on the value of these letters that get to these guys. So it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.”