NOTRE DAME — One of the key themes throughout Pope Francis’ pontificate has been a consistent call to reach to the margins of society and demonstrate merciful love to those who are often forgotten by the world.
In a homily given last month, Pope Francis reiterated the need for all Catholics to respond to the Gospel in this way, exclaiming, “Compassion leads Jesus to concrete action: He reinstates the marginalized. The way of the Church is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart; to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are essentially on the ‘outskirts’ of life.”
This is precisely the mission taken up by faculty and staff from the University of Notre Dame, Holy Cross College and the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), in conjunction with the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC), to educate and provide hope for prisoners at the Westville Correctional Facility.
The program, known as the Westville Education Initiative (WEI), offers male inmates the opportunity to enroll in college level courses to work towards earning an associate’s degree in liberal studies from Holy Cross. These inmates, who have demonstrated both an aptitude and desire to pursue studies in higher education, undertake the same level of responsibility that Notre Dame and Holy Cross professors expect from students at their respective institutions.
Jay Caponigro, director of Community Engagement at Notre Dame and facilitator for the Faculty Steering Committee with WEI, said, “We need to make sure we are offering rigorous academic courses that are at the standard of Notre Dame and Holy Cross, so if students want to apply to another institution when they leave the program to complete their bachelor’s degree, that they are prepared and have gotten the best academic training they could.”
WEI became a reality when representatives from Bard College in New York, an institution that has achieved tremendous success in prison education, contacted Notre Dame to inquire about the potential interest of expanding to Indiana. Their program, which just honored its 12th class of graduates, recently welcomed Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York as commencement speaker. There he told the men, “I salute you this graduation morning because you have learned not only the lessons of books, library, classroom and professors, but the most sublime lesson of them all: that the essence of life, the core of living, is found within the human person, not without.”
He further emphasized the importance of lifelong learning beginning at an early age, saying, “A solid education is perhaps the most valuable gift we can (and must) provide our young people. Better schools mean less poverty, violence, crime … and prisons!”