Report on IPCA Europe Committee Meeting - Vienna May 2019


3 Days of Prison ... Presence ... and Pizza

It really is such a blessing when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity. All the more so when we gather from as far North as Bergen, South as Kyiv, West as Rennes, and East as … well that would be you again Viktor in Kyiv! Added to that our Lutheran, Baptist, Independant Church, Orthodox and Salvation Army denominational differences, it is soon obvious why, even in a gathering of the IPCA Steering Committee our rich cultural and religious diversity requires fellowship inspired and created by the Holy Spirit. And this is exactly what we, as IPCA (Europe) steering committee experienced when we met for 72 Hrs in Vienna this week.

Presence - Chaplaincy ministry is often considered an ‘incarnational ministry’ where we co-operate with the presence of God in the circumstances we find ourselves. Visiting the towering UN buildings at the Vienna International Centre where approximately 4000 staff work to ensure global co-operation and justice, it felt that our presence was indeed very small. However in meeting with four senior officials  responsible for work (within UNODC) that informs a) those managing people in prison who have been radicalised to violence, b) rehabilitation, c) prison reform and d) restorative justice, it was clear that this appointment was one where we had the huge privilege of being involved in such an incarnational moment. To meet with one of these senior officials and advocate for the work of Chaplains across Europe would have been an honour, to meet with four together plus an intern for over 2 ½ hours was exceptional. We explored, in an open and mutually appreciative way the big issues which our respective penal systems face in all of these areas, touching repeatedly on  a wide range of key themes such decency, multi-faith issues and experience, perceived independence of chaplaincy presence, over-representation of minority groups internationally, confidentiality and the power of confessional wisdom, the need for attitudinal change to those leaving prison in our communities, and the importance of good officer-inmate relationships. We would really like to thank Phillip Meissner and the team he assembled for making the afternoon such a helpful and inspiring one. Full report here

Prison - We would like to thank Matthias Geist, former IPCA Committee member, Prison Chaplain and now Regional Lutheran Bishop for the greater Vienna area for facilitating a visit to the very complex establishment that is Justizanstalt Wien-Josefstadt Prison in central Vienna. Just around the corner from the Rathus, Vienna’s impressive town hall, we found the prison. In this one building there are remand prisoners, both male and female, juvenile and adult prisoners, sentenced prisoners, overseas prisoners and Austrian prisoners. Added to this, the prison is attached to a substantial court building. Our visit, where Matthias joined with prison staff in showing us around was both cordial and informative. It is always helpful to see how those things we take as ‘normal’ in our own settings fall short of what others consider in theirs. Similarly the ‘normals’ of others can sometime open our own minds to their different experiences. Having spent the previous day in some part considering the Nelson Mandela rules with the UNODC it was evident that our ‘normals’ are not enough to establish decent prisons and the desire for establishments to establish such Standard Minimum Rules (SMR’s) is always the benchmark we move from. Whether decency in detaining suspected drug carriers, caring for those who may harm themselves, or ensuring adequate meaningful activity, our role as Prison Chaplains, carrying and holding hope for others, drives us to participate in move beyond the ‘normal’ to the extraordinary.

… and lastly … Pizza! - Yes, this is Vienna, not Venice! However the conversations and reflections we shared as fellow children of God over pizza was, for me at least, a crucial part of our time together as a committee. During these times, (and in more formal settings too!), we explored ways that we can support and encourage chaplains best across Europe through future conferences, (including the next IPCA Europe Quinquennial conference in 2022) and smaller consultations (as happened in Rome in 2016), through better communications (such as this hopefully), and through developing the IPCA community to be a place where, though diverse, though often physically distanced, though sometimes disadvantaged, we can make very effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. That bond is surely rooted in our desire to work amongst those in our prisons, to remember those who live and work there, and to seek to see transformation as we participate with God in His presence there. Jesus still calls us to unity; unity inspired by his presence, unity through his work in us in prisons, and unity as we share pizza too! 

Revd Bob Wilson (Vice Chair, IPCA)

12th – 15th May 2019

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