By Gordon Nary
Father Mark has been elevated to a Bishop and is no longer at Kolbe House
Gordon: What are you primary responsibilities as Director of Kolbe House?
Father Mark: Number one, and the most exciting thing right now, is that I am the Staff Chaplain for Division 9 at the County Jail. That’s about 900 men. At the end of a month and a half I have been through the 24 tiers in Nine two times. I am looking forward to learning more about jail ministry as I go along. Becoming known by inmates and staff is a responsibility, a necessity and a challenge in this environment. I am also the head of a very small staff, including an Associate Director who coordinates our volunteer chaplains, and an Office Manager. I have a fair amount of writing to do, as we do our own fundraising via direct mail on an almost monthly basis. I’m pastor of Assumption BVM Parish, too, which is another thing all together.
Gordon: Approximately how many prisoners does Kolbe House serve?
Father Mark: There are some 8,000 men and women incarcerated in the Cook County Jail. There are another 340 in the Juvenile Detention Center, and over 500 in the Lake County Jail.
Gordon: What are Kolbe House’s most immediate needs?
Father Mark: We need to do some strategic planning. Vis-a-vis the County, I’d like for KH to be recognized as a partner by the jail administration. We are permitted only a relatively small number of staff and volunteers (< 50) to provide Catholic ministry. We could use many more. Improving our pastoral care of the corrections officers and employees is one means to that end. With regard to the “Kolbe House Family”, we are looking for ways to stay in touch with the support systems of those who are in prison, to provide spiritual and social support to them while their son/daughter/father/mother is locked up. Communication is a key part of that challenge, and we’re talking to professionals about how to improve in that area. I’d like to put an advisory board together, with membership sharing their expertise in law, social work, communication, business administration and fundraising.
Gordon: Could you comment on WGN’s report on Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s statement on the problems of mass incarceration?
Father Mark: One of my handicaps for this work is an extremely short-range radar. I never gave this issue a moment’s thought until I found myself at the helm of the Archdiocesan agency that provides Catholic ministry at the jail. In six short weeks I have had more than a glimpse the frightening effect of bureaucratizaton on both the staff and the inmates at the Jail. The Sheriff's proposal makes very good sense.
Gordon: Finding employment after release from prison has been a major challenge. Do you have any suggestions on how parishes can help promote hiring for released convicts by their parishioners?
Father Mark: Kolbe House has always tried to offer support to people once they leave the system, as well as being present to them while they’re locked up. Until now, that support has been limited to food, clothing, and occasional help with bills. A very small segment of the population accesses that assistance. Since I started on July 1, I’ve been introduced to the work of Fr. Greg Boyle in Los Angeles. We should be able to do something in the Archdiocese of Chicago like he did in in LA: create small, viable business to provide employment opportunities for ex offenders. Such an enterprise would directly benefit only a few of the thousands of ex offenders currently looking for work, but it would create greater awareness of the problem and challenge some of our preconceptions. It would give Catholics a platform from which to encourage others to do the same.
Gordon: Do you have any observation on the impact of increased drug use on the arrest and imprisonment of juveniles?
Father Mark: That is such a complicated issue. The abuse of prescription drugs involves doctors, providers, and consumers. The abuse of illegal drugs similarly cuts a wide swath through our culture. All of us, really, are implicated. When I was in college, my circle of acquaintances was very much into that scene, and at that age, I’m sure nobody wondered how and under what circumstances the drugs arrived in their hands. Cardinal Francis George noted that there is no such thing as private sin, and the drug problem proves the point. Many of the people I see in jail have been in the system since they were children, providing for the recreational drug habits of people much older, well-to-do and better situated in life than they themselves.
Gordon: If the next administration could make changes in prison sentencing guidelines. Is there a specific recommendation that you could offer?
Father Mark: No, I couldn’t do that. Inmates talk to me every day about their cases, about going to court, about the different professionals involved. A guy tells me that next month there’s going to be a motion, and he’s very hopeful about it, but I have only the faintest idea what a motion might be. The experience of being incarcerated and having access to the law library at the jail has given the people I work with an ample vocabulary and familiarity with the world of law,. Perhaps if I watched more tv I’d know what ’s going on - but in fact I do not know what’s going on. I have a lot to learn!
Gordon: In the 1980s, you spent several years at the former Chicago Shakespeare Company which is a somewhat unusual background in the priesthood What were some of your favorite Shakespeare plays and what roles did you perform
Father Mark: We had several seasons doing free Shakespeare in Chicago parks. One summer I had a lot of fun playing Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We toured that show to various summer resort areas, including the Indiana Dunes, where (under attack by monster mosquitoes) the cast led the audience around to different locations for each scene. My swansong was playing Angelo in Measure for Measure. I had the chance to play Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Hamlet, too, in cuttings: we brought scenes from the major plays to schools all over the area…sort of a “Best of the Bard” program that gave all of us opportunities that we might not otherwise have had.
Gordon: Several years ago, Kenji Yoshino, a law professor, wrote a book on Shakespeare and Justice How can some of Shakespeare‘s insights be applied to our current justice system?
Father Mark: Shakespeare seems to me an old friend I have not seen in many years, but who is ever present in my thoughts. Back when I was 26 I didn’t think very deeply about what Measure for Measure has to say on the subject of justice. In the Company, I think we were more interested in the moral hypocrisy of Angelo, and our 20-something selves probably felt we were flinging some eternal truth in the face of the Establishment as we produced the play.
I’m 55 now. I would have to confess that the most interesting thing to me today is not his plays per se, but the open question of whether or not he was subversively Catholic. Yoshino’s observation that both virtues (mercy and justice) are dangerous in the hands of the wrong person, at the wrong time or in the wrong measure, resonates with me. Wisdom is the virtue lacking in both the Duke and in Angelo. It’s the gift that should have guided them in the use of the power invested in them. And each of us is called to develop that wisdom within ourselves through exercise of the faith. The renaissance in 16th Century England celebrated the awakening of the individual, and Hamlet’s soliloquy perhaps capsulizes that awakening better than anything in the canon. But I would suggest that we need to recover the idea of the individual discovering himself in the context of other people. Wisdom can only be exercised in concert with others. “Others,” for Catholics, means the Church. Flannery O’Connor reportedly said, in the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness. And tenderness leads to the gas chamber. I think our society heads down that road as it eschews religion, failing to develop that inner voice we call conscience. We won’t be able to hire enough police once we have given up policing ourselves.