Bishop preaches a message of hope to inmates

Bishop preaches a message of hope to inmates

Bishop Sullivan administers holy oil on the forehead of one of four inmates who received the sacrament of confirmation at South Woods Prison, Bridgeton, on April 13. Below, the bishop gives his homily. More than 100 inmates attended Mass.
Photos by Mary McCusker

BRIDGETON — Bishop Dennis Sullivan switched seamlessly between English and Spanish during a Holy Week Mass for inmates at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton on April 13.

He stood behind a makeshift altar adorned with flowers in a spacious room — a room that could have passed for a high school gymnasium anywhere in South Jersey.

But the uniformed security officers situated outside of every entrance made it clear that this was not an school gymnasium.

Nor was it a typical Mass.

One by one, inmates dressed in drab green uniforms were escorted into the improvised chapel, and quietly seated themselves.

Light streamed into the room as Bishop Sullivan spoke of the beauty and mystery of Holy Week. “This is a time to be charitable toward one another and remember that God is here to help us. Look inside yourself, seek out good people, and God will be there to help.”

He continued, “We are all sinners,” he said, “And I stand here as a shepherd,” motioning toward his staff. “I will pray for you. Please pray for me, too.”

Heads bowed reverently, and several inmates wiped tears from their faces.

In addition to administering the Eucharist to more than 100 inmates during the holiest week of the year, four inmates received the sacrament of confirmation, which, as Bishop Sullivan explained, “strengthens them with Christ and his presence.”

The room fell silent except for Bishop Sullivan’s blessings, as he administered holy oil on the foreheads of each of the four inmates.

Deacon Don Rogozenski, who assisted at the Mass, has been volunteering twice a week at the South Woods Prison for the past two years. He prepared the men for receiving the sacrament of confirmation and served as their sponsor.

“I’ve witnessed a real desire among the men in these prisons to improve themselves. And a big element of that is finding their faith again. It’s a difficult thing that they’re trying to do, and you have to give them credit,” he said. “They’ve recognized their mistakes, and now they are making peace with themselves and with God.”

He continued, “You need to understand them as human beings. They’re not second class human beings. They’re paying their price to society. And they recognize that. And now it’s a matter of improving themselves, and to serve as examples of faith to the other inmates. It’s easy to keep it a secret, it’s another to live out their faith in that environment. And I challenge them to do that.”

In addition to diocesan clergy, Catholic Charities staff were also present: executive director Kevin Hickey, as well as Prison Ministry coordinator Deacon Jim Hallman and Prison Reentry coordinator Kisanna Owens.

Deacon Hallman, who provides coordination and resources for the clergy and volunteer laity who visit and provides pastoral and sacramental care to those incarcerated, reflected on the Mass. “The Spirit was in that place. We couldn’t ask for anything more — the beautiful liturgy with the bishop celebrating Mass for the inmates and the staff, a music ministry led by Deacon Joe Seaman that helped move the Spirit among all of us, highlighted with the confirmation of four prisoners by the bishop, continuing their journey in our Catholic faith. It was a remarkable day to say the least.”

Mass ended with a round of applause for the newly-confirmed inmates, and all sang the joyful “City of God” hymn.

As the men exited the gymnasium, they shook hands and shared a few words and laughs with Bishop Sullivan and the other ministers and volunteers.

To volunteer or for more information about the Prison Ministry of Catholic Charities in the Camden Diocese, visit: http://catholiccharitiescamden.org/prison-ministry/

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