Program brings ‘structure and purpose’ to inmates’ lives

Since 2014, Father Matthew Habiger, OSB, has served as spiritual director and coordinator of the Oblates in Prison program. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JD BENNING

by Marc and Julie Anderson
mjanderson@theleaven.org

ATCHISON — While most Catholics have a number of ways to discover a path to holiness through the Carmelites, Secular Franciscans or other third orders, the incarcerated often have few choices. One monk is changing that.

Since 2014, Father Matthew Habiger, OSB, has served as spiritual director and coordinator of the Oblates in Prison program, an adaptation of the Benedictine Oblates as outlined in 2004 by Father Louis Kirby, OSB.

“He tailored the oblate movement,” said Father Matthew.

It made sense to Father Louis that prisoners could grow in virtue, reclaim their God-given dignity and experience his love while serving out their sentences.

With 11 prisons in a 20-mile radius of Cañon City, Colorado, the monk ministered to men and women longing for a relationship with God. For more than 10 years, he served as a spiritual director and father to them. Then, the priest succumbed to the inevitable.

“He had the audacity to die,” Father Matthew said with a laugh.

Up until October 2013, Father Matthew had been active in pro-life and natural family planning rather than prison ministry. But some handwritten letters changed his life.

An incarcerated oblate in Delta, Colorado, wrote him inquiring about natural family planning. Father Matthew thought nothing of it at first and gladly sent him the information. Then the same incarcerated man, along with another, sent letters to the abbey in Atchison extolling the virtues of the oblate prison ministry and expressing their love for Father Louis.

It soon became clear to Father Matthew that the Lord was calling him in a different direction.

“I think Louis was working from heaven,” he said, eyes twinkling. “So, I ask you: How do you say no?”

Two summers ago, he led retreats in six different prisons in Colorado. Afterwards, correspondence started pouring in — and by correspondence, he means hand-addressed, handwritten letters.

Father Matthew answers each letter personally, as he knows the oblates rely on him for spiritual guidance and advice.

When an individual first sends a letter to Father Matthew expressing interest, he sends a copy of the Rule of St. Benedict, the Oblation Manual for Prisoners and “The History of the Benedictines and the Oblates of Saint Benedict.”

Those who remain interested are offered a formal application. It includes standard demographic information and a section to express their thoughts as to why they want to become oblates.

During their yearlong candidacy, oblates experience communal life inasmuch is possible given their incarceration. They pray lauds, vespers and compline; read the Rule of St. Benedict three times; pray the rosary; participate in Mass as often as possible; and grow in the values and virtues of Benedictine monasticism — including prayer, humility, obedience, peace, patience, charity and reverence.

After a year, candidates write letters to Father Matthew, expressing their spiritual growth and their wish to become an oblate. In turn, the monk sends the prison chaplain the official rite of oblation to be administered by a local diocesan priest.

“It’s just beautiful stuff,” Father Matthew said.

He spends between 40 to 60 hours each week on correspondence. In addition to answering the letters and providing requested Catholic resources to the incarcerated, Father Matthew and a team of volunteers publish a monthly newsletter, offering reflections for incarcerated oblates appropriate to the liturgical season.

“As a [vowed] religious, you learn to do what God’s calling you to do,” he said.

And he is quick to acknowledge the contributions of his fellow monks. The entire abbey community prays regularly for the prisoners and those with authority over them, he said, such as guards, judges and probation officers.

Approximately 25 percent of those incarcerated worldwide are in American prisons, Father Matthew said. He has come to believe the penal system within the United States needs reform.

“It should be a time for rehabilitation, but is this happening?” he asked.

Many of those incarcerated experienced abuse, fatherlessness and poverty through no fault of their own. Searching for meaning in their lives led some down destructive paths.

And while he cannot solve all the problems himself, the monk educates others about the need for prison reform while ministering to more than 500 prisoners in 39 states.

“Wherever humanity is, there is Christ,” he said. And for the incarcerated, “the oblate program seems to be a perfect fit.”

The program helps to bring “structure and purpose back into their lives,” he added.

Discovering a path to holiness was critical to Brian O’Connell. Once incarcerated in a Colorado correctional facility, O’Connell was introduced to the oblates through Father Louis in June 2010.

During the next three-and-a-half years, O’Connell maintained a regular correspondence with Father Louis, receiving instruction in the Benedictine life.

“Prison is a very chaotic environment,” he said. “[Being an oblate] brought mental clarity, focus and peace in an environment where that does not exist.”

When Father Louis died, the correspondence, including the newsletter, stopped.

O’Connell said he first wrote Father Matthew asking for natural family planning information. Later, he and Joshua McKenzie wrote Father Matthew about reviving the program and was glad Father Matthew “accepted the challenge.”

Throughout the rest of his incarceration, O’Connell’s faithful witness brought more than 50 others to the Catholic faith. Today, he has five godsons, who, like him, served time. The five men have formed “a close-knit community” and hold each other accountable to live out their oblation.

Released for more than two years, he serves as the editor in chief of the oblate newsletter and said he cannot imagine living his life any other way.

“Being an oblate has empowered me to be a better father, a better husband,” he said.

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