When Gonzalo De Vivero got his start in prison ministry 45 years ago as a volunteer, he saw chaplains as people who were there to “preach and teach.”

But all those years — especially the last two of pandemic — have led to a rethinking of his ministry, and that of the office he now leads. 

Somewhere along the way, De Vivero said, “we finally learned that’s not our function.”

“We need to listen,” believes the director of the ORJ for the last seven years. “They share stories of pain and suffering, and maybe that opens the door to share possibilities.”

Earlier this year, those lessons prompted his office to look inward and revise its own mission statement. In the revised statement, for example, the idea that pastoral care is needed for the incarcerated (no longer called “offenders”) has been extended to the victims and their families. 

And rather than offering a “challenge to the Church to respond to Jesus’ invitation to walk with the prison and comfort those who mourn,” the ministry’s invitation is for those to “embrace Jesus’ invitation” and “work to inspire positive changes in the criminal justice system.”

It isn’t just a matter of semantics to De Vivero. In fact, he said he is still trying to find the best way to administer the program. 

“The words we changed are appropriate as the approach we now have with inmates, focusing on more training and education to gain a better comfort zone,” said De Vivero, a native of Lima, Peru, and a parishioner at Our Lady of Grace Church in Encino.

His assessment that some 85% of inmates have issues with drugs and alcohol has also changed the direction of their programs.

In a May 2022 service report filed with the LA County Sheriff’s Department, the ORJ reported it had employed 11 chaplains recording more than 9,000 hours of visits in the last year, as well as 34 volunteers logging more than 3,000 hours. They tended to more than 20,000 individuals in English and some 8,000 in Spanish. 

“I couldn’t be more proud of how the chaplains continued to do one-on-one visits inside the jails during the middle of COVID — you need a lot of faith and courage to do that,” said De Vivero, 73, who has just himself started going back into jails for visits after being told to work from home during the pandemic because of his age.

Now 23 years sober from alcoholism and finding the 12-step program as viable with him as it is with helping inmates, De Vivero wants to make sure his ministry “meets people where they are. We don’t have to be door-to-door preachers. We need to speak in their language. We believe we have to surrender.”

A two-day statewide retreat held last June at St. Patrick’s Church in South Los Angeles — which had been delayed because of COVID — allowed the ORJ to refocus as well on sharing ideas and best policies.

All in all, De Vivero still contends that the restorative justice ministry “is the best-kept secret in all the Catholic Church.” And the support of Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, he said, “continues to fill me with hope and keep our programs going to help our dreams hopefully someday come true.”