God is present in prisons

Father John A. Kiley

For many years the prison ministry at the Adult Correctional Institution in Cranston was administered by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, priests and brothers who were stationed at St. Joseph Church in West Warwick and at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Warwick.

For the past ten or fifteen years however the ministry to Rhode Island’s prisoners has been maintained from the Diocesan Office of Catholic Charities and Social Ministries. Recently that office asked a few retired priests to contribute their time by offering Mass periodically for incarcerated Catholics. From that meeting, five priests joined the ranks of those other priests and deacons and lay persons who have already been serving the imprisoned for a number of years. In spite of my many years in the active priesthood, I was amazed to learn that Mass or the occasional Eucharistic service is offered daily at some venue at the prison. Parish priests cover the Masses offered during the week and on Sundays when priests are often ministering at their parishes a Eucharistic service may be offered by a competent lay person.

Currently the ministry to prisoners is coordinated by Martha Paone, a parishioner at Saints John and Paul parish in Coventry. Martha or a prison guard meets the celebrating priest and accompanies him to an area chapel where everything is available for Mass. Strict security is enforced in spite of the religious nature of the visit. In my experience, about thirty men, mostly young, mostly minority, mostly unchurched, and always respectful, attend Mass. Some will volunteer to read the Scriptures. A very few might know the appropriate responses. Some will accept Communion; others will ask for a blessing. By prison rules, there is little interaction with the prisoners who come to Mass. Personal dialogue is another ministry altogether and is strictly guided by prison rules. Some deacons are permitted by prison officials to visit individual prisoners for personal dialogue. Nonetheless, as at any daily Mass, the celebrant has a wonderful if brief opportunity to speak the Good News of Jesus Christ to the imprisoned. The Catholic liturgy, even when celebrated with minimal trappings, is a graphic announcement of the nearness of God through Christ and his Church. Through the Mass, God is handily present there in their midst.

One week when I expected to offer Mass at the prison’s Intake Center, I was informed that a travelling Protestant Ministry group called Rock of Ages had been inadvertently allotted the same brief time. I graciously bowed to the visiting Protestants (they were from the Midwest) but I also remained to hear their presentation. The two gentlemen, in street attire, employed no religious items save for their Bibles from which they liberally and pointedly quoted.The service was classic hard core Protestantism. Martin Luther would have been proud.

Mankind sinned grievously in Adam and Eve, our first parents. This original sin is compounded by the many personal sins that every man and woman have shamefully committed over the years. God in his mercy recognized the sinful state of humanity as well as mankind’s total inability to repair the breech between sinful man and his infinite God. The Father’s compassion led him to send his own Eternal Son, the God/man Jesus Christ, to offer a worthy atonement for the sins of mankind. The Blood of this sinless Jesus shed on Calvary’s cross alone has proven acceptable to the Infinite Father. The individual human soul hence remains corrupted in its sinful state but that soul can be considered justified when it is clothed over with the saving Blood of Jesus Christ. Man always remains in his sins but those sins were covered over, cloaked over, obscured, by the saving Blood of Jesus Christ. Redeemed man has no reason to boast; he is still at heart a sinner. Man’s unique boast is the saving Blood of Christ upon which the Father looks favorably even when it is masking innate human corruption. Indeed Jesus saves! The worst of us can take hope!

This stern survey of the salvific action of Jesus Christ contrasts greatly with the hopeful beliefs of Catholics. Catholics accept that redeemed mankind is weak but not wicked, crooked but not corrupt, flawed but not fatally so. The Blood of Christ does not simply cover over man’s faults; the Blood of Christ actually washes mankind clean of all sin, presenting a renewed humanity to the Father – “without stain or wrinkle or anything of that sort.” The forgiveness offered to mankind through the saving death of Jesus is truly transforming, truly renewing, truly regenerating! Man is truly born anew!