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Bringing the Gospel to Prisoners

April 7, 2011

Bringing the Gospel to Prisoners 

It well could have been my first Mass as a newly ordained priest at Holy Infant, my home parish, in Ballwin, Missouri...or was it the time I was able to concelebrate with the soon-to-be Blessed John Paul II in his private chapel? Then again, it may have been Mass at one of my favorite shrines to Our Lady, such as Lourdes, Guadalupe, Knock or Czestochowa. But, how could I forget celebrating the Eucharist in the actual “upper room” of the Last Supper in Jerusalem, or in “Shepherds’ Field” outside of Bethlehem at midnight on Christmas, 1979. Then, of course, there’s a special affection for my 10:15 a.m. Sunday Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral...

Every Eucharist is special, isn’t it, as we re-live the Last Supper, Our Lord’s death on the cross, and His Resurrection from the dead, and it’s nigh to impossible to select my favorite one.

But, near the top of the list of my most memorable occasions for offering Mass has to be the ones in prison. Yes, you read me right: I savor celebrating the Eucharist for those in jail.

I’ve done it a lot, as have most other bishops or priests, I’m sure. But each one never fails to move me. And I often wonder why they are so special.

For one, the prisoners actually want to be there! No long faces or distracted looks. They really look forward to Mass! In fact, a couple of weeks ago, when I visited the prisoners at Arthur Kill Correctional Facility on Staten Island, they couldn’t fit all the men into their chapel.

They get there early, and nobody ever checks their watches, itching to leave. Of course, as I tease them, they really have no place else to go! Surprise of all, they enjoy a long sermon!

Two, they participate enthusiastically. The inmates cherish serving, lectoring, joining the choir, leading the petitions, bringing up the gifts, and taking care of their chapel. They devour the missalettes, Bibles, catechisms and rosaries people bring them at Mass. Never caught one dozing or daydreaming.

Three, they acknowledge they really need the Mass. When I invite them to “call to mind their sins” at the opening of the liturgy, do they ever; when they respond, “Lord, have mercy!” they mean it; when the lector concludes the reading with “Word of the Lord,” they bellow out “Thanks be to God”; when one of their fellow prisoners leads the petitions, praying for families, friends, healing, grace, mercy, freedom—the tears in their eyes and their sincere “Lord, hear our prayer” leave no doubt their hearts are in it; when, right before Holy Communion, they look up at the Sacred Host and proclaim, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed,” they’re not just whistlin’ Dixie.

See, what dawns on me is that these prisoners realize they need a Savior. No bail, attorney, judge, jury or parole board can come through for them right then and there; no spouse, no children, folks or friends are there next to them. They realize they need help, big time; they know they’ve made a mess of things; they’ve come to discover that there is a Lord, a friend, a Savior who will not disappoint them, and who shows up even when it’s not “visitors’ day.” And His name is Jesus. And He is there in a unique and personal way at the Eucharist.

So, they’re like the “Samaritan woman at the well” from the Gospel of two Sundays ago, a sinner, an outcast, who found in Jesus the Christ the Savior for whom she so longed.

So, those prisoners are like the “man born blind” in last Sunday’s Gospel, who realized he was in the dark until he met the “light of the world.”

So, they’re like Lazarus in this coming Sunday’s Gospel, realizing that, without Jesus, they’re dead, lifeless, without hope, “in the tomb,” in perpetual “solitary confinement.”

Once when I had Mass at a jail, one fellow knelt throughout the entire service under the cross behind the altar. At the end of the liturgy I asked why he had stayed there, and he answered, “I’m hoping I’m like Dismas, the ‘good thief,’ there next to Jesus on the cross, hearing Him whisper, ‘Jackson, this day you’ll be with me in paradise.’”

Jackson will get to heaven before me.

They want confession, and they love Our Lady; they enjoy devotions and can’t get enough of the Bible; they pray with simplicity and ease and don’t gripe much; they thank you for coming and want to know when you’ll come back.

And, as they depart, not many ask you to pray for their own intentions—but do they ever seek prayers for their kids, folks, spouses, grandparents and families who they trust are waiting for them, and hurting because of them. And they remind me to visit the prisoners in the infirmary who were too sick to come to Mass.

Some of the ancient Christian writers compared this life here on earth to a prison. Might sound gloomy, but there is some truth there. Actually, we were all on “death row,” but Jesus took our sentence upon Himself; we were guilty, but He paid the price for our sins; we think we’re innocent, but we’re felons; He is innocent and paid our ransom with His blood.

My friends in jail realize this firsthand. For them, it’s more than imagery. For them, it’s real.

So, when one of them at Arthur Kill sang, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” they all nodded, “yes!”

And, of course, it dawns on them that the Son of God, the way, the truth, and the life, their Savior, was also arrested, tortured, convicted and executed as a criminal. For them, God does indeed know what they’re going through.

And, of course, it dawns on me—and on those generous priests, deacons, sisters and devoted lay apostles who minister to prisoners—that Jesus told us, “When I was in prison, you came to visit me.”

That’s why I love celebrating Mass for prisoners.