Formerly incarcerated to make pilgrimage to Vatican

Staff report

CINCINNATI — From prison to the Vatican – that’s the amazing journey of three Cincinnatians who are taking part in a special Jubilee for Prisoners called by Pope Francis as part of his Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Over the course of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the pope has celebrated Jubilees in honor of the many men and women who live the Gospel of mercy every day of their lives. The Jubilee for Prisoners on the weekend of Nov. 5-6 will be the last of these special occasions.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Cincinnati are together sending a delegation of formerly incarcerated (returning citizens), their mentors, and prison ministry volunteers to join in this celebration – one of only three such delegations from the United States. The 22 pilgrims will leave on Nov. 2 and return on Nov. 7. After visiting many of the holy sites in Rome, they will join in the events of the Jubilee over the weekend.

Participants will have a special opportunity to walk through the “Door of Mercy” at St. Peter’s Basilica on Saturday, Nov. 5, and to spend the day with others from around the world, celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation, getting to know one another, and listening to witnesses of mercy as Pope Francis embraces the dignity of all persons, including those imprisoned.

The pope will celebrate Mass on Sunday, Nov. 6, for the incarcerated and for those who work and minister with them. This Mass seeks to recognize the dignity of the incarcerated, promote healing and forgiveness, and to lift up of the importance of prison and jail ministry. Following the Mass there will be a special reception for the prisoners, returning citizens, prison workers, and volunteers.

The three returning citizens of the Cincinnati delegations are Dominic Duren, Tiffany Hunter and Jeffrey Whalen.

Duren leads re-entry organizing at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Cincinnati. He was incarcerated in Ohio for nearly 20 years. Upon release, he struggled to land on his feet. He found the HELP Program, a Marianist ministry dedicated to supporting the formerly incarcerated, led by Brother Mike Murphy. Since connecting with Murphy, Duren has found purpose: he now works with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul helping returning citizens to find good jobs, stability, and hope.

Murphy and Duren will make this pilgrimage to the Vatican together, along with Duren’s wife and their two children.

“We are extremely proud that Dominic will represent our community and St. Vincent de Paul Cincinnati in Rome,” says SVDP Cincinnati Executive Director Mike Dunn. “Following his incarcerations, Dominic was first a client standing in line for a coat, but today is an employee of St. Vincent de Paul Cincinnati. His leadership of our reentry program helps link returning citizens with opportunities in Greater Cincinnati. His journey provides hope for everyone he encounters.”

Hunter is going with her mentor, Kate Lassiter, Ph. D. The pair built their mentoring relationship through Br. Mike’s HELP Program, and have been working together for more than a year. Since her return 11 years ago, Hunter has faced many barriers, but continues to confront the challenges she encounters with hope and perseverance. She has become a strong advocate to end gun violence and build safe communities. Her actions speak louder than words as she is involved in leading dialogue with her Avondale neighbors, organizing activities for young people, and coordinating volunteers for the upcoming election. She is also a mother to three boys.

“Tiffany is much more to me than my mentee,” said Lassiter. “I am glad to call her friend. The fact that she and I are undertaking a spiritual pilgrimage together speaks to the depths of what can happen when we show up for each other. What Tiffany has allowed me to bear witness to in her life continues to shape me as a pastoral theologian and as a person. I am so proud of her for working toward her own personal change as well as social change.”

Whalen was incarcerated a total of 15 years. While at Lebanon Correctional Institute, he joined the small faith groups and began attending Mass on the weekends – something he knows now was “nutrition” for the hunger he had but couldn’t identify. In 2010 he entered the Catholic Church while incarcerated at Lebanon. He still has close by to him his white garment and baptismal certificate that he received in prison. He left prison in 2012 and lives with his wife, Rhiannon, and their three young boys.

He regards this pilgrimage to Rome with amazement. “I see this as an opportunity to find a base in my life again and get back to who I was and what I felt when I first found Catholicism in prison.” His wife, Rhiannon will accompany him on the trip.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati is a leader in efforts to address barriers to re-entry and to stem mass incarceration. With the support of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the Archdiocese and local community and faith-based organizations have worked tirelessly to promote fair hiring in the public and private sector, to end collateral sanctions, and to promote healthy relationships through leadership development and mentoring.

Staff report