Dr McMullen said that ‘vocation’ was perhaps an ‘old fashioned’ word today, but it underlined a deep sense of calling. Reflecting on his own journey, he spoke about the peace that he had found once he had accepted the call on his life and had begun training for the ministry.
“I pray you will experience the same in your chosen walk of life. It will also not be without its misunderstandings, setbacks, frustrations and disappointments, but each experience can make us either bitter or better,” he said.
“As time goes on, we can lose that sense of youthful vision and idealism we once had as we set out on the journey. There will be times as well when we will wonder if we are making any lasting impact, or difference, because much of what we do is routine, invisible and intangible. All I can do is urge you never to forget your sense of calling and the difference that you will be able to make on people’s lives for good.”
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has ministered in prisons to prisoners and staff in a number of locations and facilities across Ireland for many years. The Church currently has both full and part-time chaplains serving in HMP Maghaberry, Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre in Bangor, Hydebank Wood College and the Northern Ireland Women’s Prison on the outskirts of Belfast and Mountjoy Prison in Dublin. The appointment of a part-time PCI chaplain to join the chaplaincy team at HMP Magilligan is pending.
Highlighting this important work that the Church is engaged in he said, “A chaplain is a listening ear, a pastoral heart and a wise mind – someone who helps re-connect all the broken and dislocated pieces of life…Chaplains are not only available to prisoners, but to all who would want to use their services.”
In his address, the Moderator spoke of his visit to Maghaberry last summer, where he met chaplains, prison officers and some prisoners. He said that was deeply impressed by the caring ethos he experienced. “I came away not in any way depressed but encouraged by the genuine attempts being made to help those serving time to move on from their offences and face a future with renewed hope and confidence. The regime I experienced is humanitarian and progressive.”
Dr McMullen continued, “That is not in any way to minimise the seriousness of offences and the need for corresponding custodial sentences, because we must never forget the impossibly high cost of crime for victims and the often life-long shattering consequences.”
He also highlighted another important aspect of the Church’s work within the criminal justice system - Thompson House. Since 1984, the hostel in north Belfast has provided supported housing to ex-offenders who have been referred by the Probation Board for Northern Ireland as being in need of approved accommodation.
Speaking to the new officers, their families, senior members of the prison service and guests, the Moderator highlighted a section from Matthew’s Gospel (25: 34-45). Here, Jesus tells his disciples of the time when he will judge the world and how in small acts of kindness they had honoured him, such as feeding the hungry, looking after the sick and visiting those in prison. “As you support people to change and care for them in custody, there is a very definite pastoral role in your work,” Dr McMullen said.
Photo (1) The Moderator, Dr Charles McMullen, with Ronnie Armour, Director General and Head of the Northern Ireland Prison Service at today's passing out parade ceremony (2) Dr Charles McMullen with Ronnie Armour and the Governor of Maghaberry Prison, Dave Kennedy, during a visit to the prison last year (picture: Michael Cooper)