Tom’s* Mum was dying, thousands of kilometers away, and he didn’t know what to do. Tom was not religious but he did know someone who was. Peter Presdee, a Catholic Deacon and Chaplain, had passed him in the prison where he worked as an officer. Peter would say hello and have a yarn. And he was a fellow Aboriginal man in uniform. Perhaps Tom could try the chaplain? After hearing the story, Peter and Robyn, his wife, came at the right time. With Tom, Tom’s wife and his comatose mother, they celebrated an unforgettable, inter-racial liturgy. Peter described it as “marvellous… you could feel them letting her go.”
Another time it was Jody and Annette*, a couple who were also prison officers. Jody rang Deacon Peter from Shoalhaven Hospital, where their little baby was seriously ill with pneumonia. Could he come and pray over their child? So Peter went. They gathered around the cot with a couple of nurses and he explained the Our Father and the Hail Mary. Then he blessed them all. Thankfully, the child improved and the family could return home. It was not only the child who changed that day, but everyone, especially Peter. A week later, Jody came up to Peter in the prison. She described the state that she had been in that day. She had just wanted to help her child and didn’t know what to do. And she didn’t think that anyone in the church would have anything to do with a lesbian. But she remembered that Peter had been telling her that God looks after all of us, including herself. So she had made the call.
These two examples epitomise Peter’s ministry to the margins, both to residents of the prison and the officers who serve them. His pathway began with a stint in the seminary in the 1960s, and led through a wavering relationship with the Catholic Church. He married Robyn, and they were led from another denomination to return/be received into the church of his origins in the early 2000s. Peter felt a calling inside to the permanent diaconate, but was initially told to “study and pray”, as his diocese did not have any in that ordained state.
So, Peter studied and prayed with gusto, until he had more qualifications than many priests. A Catholic prison chaplaincy position was opening up and Peter agreed to take it up if he was ordained. It didn’t happen straight away, but Peter gave up his job of 30 years to work in a family care centre helping the homeless and victims of violence and addiction. Five years later, he was ordained for the Wollongong Diocese and became a prison Chaplain. Shortly after that time, Robyn, who had also studied theology and pastoral care, took up a prison chaplaincy role.
Peter believes that the deacon’s role is to be the “face of Christ in the street”. He is an “extension of the bishop” and goes out on his behalf. Peter is inspired by the story in Acts 6, of people who were on the outskirts of the community for three reasons: being women, Greek and widows. It is hard to be involved in God’s family if you are hungry. So the deacon’s role is to ‘feed’ and ‘give sustenance’ the whole person, so they can truly participate. It is about service and about the essence of the Church – its people. He finds Jesus in those he meets, especially where there is no church structure. And in reaching out to the world ‘outside the temple’ he both nourishes and is nourished by them in turn.
The prison is the perfect place for Peter to follow this calling. He sees a lot of trauma, the stolen generation happening again, and people who feel forgotten. There are some who have fallen from the heights to the lows, and there are some who face the words, “Crucify him!” when they leave. Peter’s role is to walk with those inside, and along the way, experience connections with faith. He says that the thing about prison ministry is that it is more than reading passages of the bible, or saying prayers, but you must be there to nourish them in a total sense. Then liturgy becomes the praising of God that emerges. Peter gets mad when liturgies are foreign to people’s lives. Rather, it is from enjoying the presence of Christ in each other, that they come together. As a deacon, he knows real liturgy on the margins, “taking the blood of the altar to the blood of the street.”
* Not their real names.