October 13, 2017

Greencastle couple ‘walks the walk’ with inmates while sharing the Catholic faith in prisons

Teresa and Bernie Batto share the faith with inmates at the Putnamville Correctional Facility in Putnam County. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Teresa and Bernie Batto share the faith with inmates at the Putnamville Correctional Facility in Putnam County. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy (Fifth in a continuing series)

GREENCASTLE—The faces of Teresa and Bernie Batto glow, like parents recalling a wondrous moment in the lives of their children.

“We have walked with them and grew with them and learned from them, and they learned from us,” says Teresa, beaming with joy and pride. “You do feel like they’re your children in the faith.”

As she shares that thought, her mind is focused on the unusual scene that created that feeling.

It took place in May when 10 inmates at the Putnamville Correctional Facility in Putnam County were received into the full communion of the Church when they were baptized by Father John Hollowell, pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle and Annunciation Parish in Brazil.

For the Battos, that moment meant that all their volunteer efforts of visiting and sharing their faith with inmates in the local prison has helped 20 inmates become Catholic in the past three years. Yet rather than considering that reality as a source of pride for themselves, they feel a sense of joy—and hope—for the men who now share their faith.

(Related: Prison ministry conference set for Oct. 28 in Columbus)

“It’s a very fulfilling kind of feeling,” Bernie says. “Something so important to us—the faith, the Gospel, the teachings of Jesus—these people have experienced God’s love and mercy. And knowing that you have been part of their rebirth, it is overwhelming.”

Yet so is the fear that the Battos—who have been married for 50 years—feel for their “children in the faith.”

It’s a fear they share through the story of Tom, one of the inmates.

Concern and commitment

When Tom was first approached about whether he would be open to meeting with a visitor, his initial response was, “Leave me alone.”

Yet something about the Battos’ presence and approach at the prison attracted him. He eventually joined in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) program that the Battos lead at the prison. And he was one of the 10 men to enter the Church in May.

“He’s very committed and so dedicated,” Bernie says. “He enjoys the community, the support and the Bible study.”

According to the Battos, Tom also fears what will happen to him in the coming months when he is scheduled to be released from prison, and that sense of community and support is no longer there.

That fear is real, according to an archdiocesan task force on prison ministry that met regularly in 2016 to develop a plan to help individuals, parishes and the broader Church in central and southern Indiana make a deeper commitment to this outreach.

Teresa and Bernie were members of that task force. They also continue to be strong voices in putting into place the task force’s recommendations of assisting people who are re-entering society after being in prison.

Key elements of this goal include training potential mentors to help people during this transition, and establishing connections with parishes and the St. Vincent de Paul Society to provide material needs to assist people during this time.

Another emphasis involves working with employers and programs that provide support and job opportunities for people who have been in jail or prison.

“Without a job, it is nearly impossible to establish a new life and become productive citizens,” noted the task force’s final report. “However, nearly 75 percent of Hoosier employers are reluctant or simply refuse to hire ex-offenders. When such individuals are unemployed, their chances of returning to prison are 60 percent.”

According to the Battos, that overall reality worries Tom.

It also concerns them.

‘Touched by grace’

“These are people who have been touched by grace,” Bernie says. “They really want to change. They don’t want to go back into that situation. The problem is that when they get out, they’re back in the very spot where the problem started.”

There’s also the reality that they’re often feared when they seek help and connection after re-entering society.

“We had two experiences with people we worked with who were turned away by a parish when they got out,” Bernie notes. “One had long hair and tattoos, and the door to the parish office was locked on him. Parishes weren’t open to receiving them, so we felt we had to get a system in place where they were welcomed instead of rejected.”

With that goal in mind, the archdiocese has established an office of corrections ministry.

“We wanted to have some place they could go and get help,” Teresa says. “Apparently, some of that is beginning. My dream is to have a Catholic house for people when they get out—that even if they don’t live there, they get support there.”

Bernie adds, “The other thing we really hope is that each parish will have some kind of support, a contact person to help these people.”

The potential of offering help and hope to people in prison still motivates and energizes Teresa at 75 and Bernie at 76.

‘We walk the walk with them’

Teresa has been following her vision of making a difference in the lives of people in prison for more than 25 years.

She first became involved in prison ministry in 1991 through Prison Visitation and Support (PVS), a national program in which volunteers visit inmates in federal prisons. She is now the coordinator of the PVS effort at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, where 13 volunteers visit prisoners, including some on “death row.”

Bernie has been joining her at the Terre Haute prison for the past 10 years, since retiring as a professor of religious studies at DePauw University in Greencastle.

Yet, it’s at the Putnamville Correctional Facility where the parents of five grown children get to bring their Catholic faith to the men there. They lead a weekly Liturgy of the Word and Communion service, and a weekly Centering Prayer service that draws about 10 to 15 inmates each time. Teresa also directs a Christmas play each year at the prison, featuring the men.

“The experience that both Bernie and Teresa bring to the ministry has given them a great amount of credibility among both the staff and the inmates,” says Father Hollowell, who offers Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation once a month at the Putnamville prison.

“The moments that stand out the most to me are all of the souls that Bernie and Teresa have helped to shepherd into the Catholic Church through their prison RCIA class.”

Their efforts have changed lives, says Deacon Michael Braun, the archdiocesan director of pastoral ministries, which includes the corrections ministry.

“They have helped many offenders to encounter Jesus Christ with their visits and the Catholic services they coordinate every Wednesday,” he says. “In their witness of Catholic faith, they have accompanied many men on the path to a deeper relationship with our Lord.”

That’s their ultimate goal, the Battos say. They have seen men trying to change. They have witnessed God making that change possible. It’s a combination that keeps them coming back each week.

“We walk the walk with them,” Teresa says. “It’s been a wonderful life. When you’ve been blessed, you try to bless others.” †

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