Friday, April 13, 2007


As a priest, you often ‘get to’ see the inside of a jail. (Kind of like Adoro’s getting to see tragedy.) Well, you get to see waiting and visiting rooms. Neither of these are places to write home about.

Usually a visit to a jail means an interminable wait in the outer lobby. Nobody is in much of a talkative mood. Not even the guard behind the desk with whom I tried to be friendly, but I could see why. Not only does that guard have a stressful job, she got a whole lot of grief from just about everyone who came in be they lawyers or moms. And you can’t bring a book (ack!) because you cannot carry anything with you inside the jail. That pretty much leaves staring at the crime prevention and terror alert posters and saying rosaries on your fingers.

There was one man whom I took to visiting that I came to admire and am proud to have as a friend to this day. He is a strong Catholic and it was largely though his efforts that I was able to have a “Christmas” mass at the jail. It was actually advent, but we do what we can.

I arrived at the lobby and was asked to sit and wait. The chaplain (who was perpetually late or missing) came to get me after some time. There was the usual screening and emptying of pockets. Then with mass kit in hand, we headed into the depths of the jail.

The electronic locks whirred and we entered a long, white hallway, white being the fashionable color for jails it seems. We passed the visiting room where I almost always turned in and through more remotely controlled doors. We came to what I believe was some sort of debriefing room. It was of cinder block and there were small tables with two chairs each all facing toward the front of the room.

The chaplain volunteered to go get water for the cruet while I unpacked my kit. When she came back she about went into apoplexy. “What is THAT doing here?” “That” was a bottle of liturgical wine.


“You can’t have that in here. Are you crazy?”

“Well, this IS mass, and I can’t have mass without wine.”

She was right though. I was a bit naive and we agreed that if I came back, I would bring MUCH less wine and would be MUCH more discreet about it and it would NOT be in a glass bottle. For the time being she had me hide it. Well.

Slowly; agonizingly slowly the men were brought in. I don’t know what I expected, but they were all very polite. It was suggested to me by a volunteer that we sing a song. That was the last thing on my mind. Weren’t these men hardened criminals whose goal was to appear macho; singing only causing them to roll their eyes and think me a dork? I didn’t think they’d be up to it. I didn't think that I would be up to it. But I was wrong. They not only sang, they sang with a enough gusto to make me wish we had so many men sing so well at the parish.

I thought mass went swimmingly. Then began the agonizingly slow return of the men to their cells. I was to stay put until I could be escorted out along with my bottle of wine.

When at last the officers came back for me they were laughing out of relief. “Wow, that was scary,” they said. I had no idea what they were talking about. I rarely do. Apparently there was some kind of nefarious goings on in the back of the makeshift chapel. They were afraid that there was going to be some sort of escalation of violence between two gangs and they were just shy of calling in reinforcements. It all went completely over my head. Good thing.

I must say that everyone always seemed much nicer when I was leaving. Maybe they were glad to have me and my bottle of wine out of their hair, or maybe the stress of having me there was over and they could relax and be more talkative. I don’t know.

It is said that one can tell how civil a society is by the way that it treats its prisoners. “Blessed are you when you visited me in jail . . .” * sigh * There is a woeful need for priests at our prisons and even I wonder how to take on yet another ministry outside of the parish. Please keep those who live in, work at, and volunteer at your local prison or jail in your prayers.

"Brotherly love must continue. Do not neglect hospitality for through it some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those in prison as if you were in prison with them, and those ill-treated as if you to felt their torment." Hebrew 13:1-3


Anonymous said...

if you're working hard to make the rest of us feel guilty, too, just stop it!

actually, in such as circumstance as being incarcerated, i suspect a roman collar might be a sight to behold.

the other 'plain clothes' ministers that come in and out probably look like just any other trouble maker through the doors ... but a roman collar...

Adoro said...

Oh, yes, I can tell you stories about holding cells and jails, and plexiglass rooms for out of control detainees....

(I used to be a cop...saw a lot in that short period of time).

I actually recently had a customer (in my current career) who was in jail, and he underwent a very real conversion. There was a Christian wing set up which apparently found a lot of success in that there wasn't so much recidivism.

Please do cont. to bring up prison/jail ministry. It's so important.

And encourage people to read Fr. Walter Ciszek - I have a wonderful "Prayer of Surrender" I obtained from someone, coming from his works - and I know of an ex-inmate who put that very prayer on this cell wall and prayed it daily. It changed his life.

Anonymous said...

God bless you. Few people still visit prisons these days. I think probably that priests and the Legion of Mary (who are sent by priests) are some of the few folks still out there who do.

Anonymous said...

I did a little volunteer work as a teenager at a local hospital and met a troubled, intellectually gifted girl named Angie. She had been offered a college scholarship, but lost it when she got sent to a detention home. She matter-of-factly told me her story of abuses she endured in her past. I think the hospital had just provided her an abortion that day. Her boyfriend was a troublemaker too, but she was wearing a rosary around her neck that he had given her. My knowledge of the faith was pretty weak back then, but what I had to give her, she devoured. I am not being naive when I say that this tough girl had gifts and the will to be the next Mother Theresa, she simply wasn't taught.

I agonize over all the Angie's that are in detention homes or prisons that never had a chance. Under the same circumstances, I would be a monster. I donate to "The Word Among Us" regularly (they produce a Catholic magazine for people in prison) but I wish there was something more I could do. Fr. V, do detention homes or women's reformatories allow visitors like me who just want to be an ear for people that have no one?

Anonymous said...

Or any clerical collar, Uncle Jim. Or any Religious habit.

Yes, God bless you and all who walk this work of mercy. I came across the Sts. Dismas and Magdalen prison ministries long ago, and there are a slew of others ('though likely not Catholic) when "prison ministry" is Googled. At one time, it may've been only hardened criminals in our jails, but that's not so now, if it ever was. Besides, even the worst people are still people, made in His image and whom He'd like to have more in His likeness. They all started out just like us, just as the saints and as their Jesus before them did. Love-able, lovable children.


Adoro said...

sparky ~ Yes, they do. There is also a group called "AMICUS" cant' remember what it stands for, but I believe it may be a national organization.

You can contact your local jails and prisons and see what kind of volunteer opps are available, or check with your local parishes.

Barb the Evil Genius said...

Reminds me of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown, who was such an excellent foil to the career thief (whose name I can't remember) because as a priest, he'd seen it all and heard it all.

Odysseus said...

I think prison ministry has such great potential because those who know evil, and have done great evil, more easily recognize that which is good. I am sure there are many people who have done time and, consequently, lead more saintly lives than many of us who lead safer lives ever do.

Not that I am recommending a life of crime! I just notice in scripture (St. Paul) and history (St. Augustine and St. Francis) that some people who engage in wickedness come closer to God, in the end, than most others.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Rob. I tend to look at it that there is hope for the rest of us. Look at St. Peter too who had a bad temper and denied Christ.

Fr. V said...

Adoro - what ELSE have you done???

For those of you who are interested, contact your parish or diocese and inquire about what kind of prison ministry they have and if you can participate. If either is lacking, ask your pastor if he will sponsor a prison ministry. (It's always easier if you have a sponsor such as that.) On the one hand it can be a sad and sometimes frustrating ministry - it can also be supremely rewarding - but neither is the reason to do it. We do it because we are called to it.

I must admit at my new assigment I've not yet delved into that ministry as I did before. Perhaps there will be a call to do so soon.

Rob and all - YES! That is what can be so rewarding at times. C. S. Lewis said, "Prostitutes (and I suggest anybody in life that suggests much sin) are in no danger of finding their lives so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God. The proud, the averous, the self righteous are in that danger."

Adoro said...

Fr. V. ~ I've done all sorts of things I ought not to have done, but God let me do it anyway.

Um...I've also worked with prostitutes both in Mexico and in the US, in different contexts but their stories are similar.

If you'd like, I'll send you the link...that story is on my blog.

Yeah...I'm only 32 but I've done everything and did it all between the ages of 20-25 or so. I've been completely stagnant for years now. It's not very interesting.

Fr. V said...


Yes, Please send the link!