In the space of a year and a half, Bishop Dennis Sullivan completed a goal set at the beginning of his tenure to visit the nine correctional facilities within the Diocese of Camden.
South Jersey has five county jails, three state prisons, and one federal prison. On Dec. 18 the bishop visited the last on the list, Cumberland County Jail in Bridgeton.
The inmates in orange jumpsuits sat at one end of the cinder block-walled gym in plastic chairs spaced at even two-foot intervals. At the other end of the square enclosure was the altar. About 15 feet separated it from the group of men. Around the walls, guards in black encircled the group watchfully, one for each of the men in orange.
Into this tense space walked Bishop Dennis Sullivan in purple Advent vestments, Fathers Vincent Guest and Michael Romano at his side. The small group of visitors from Catholic Charities began singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”
After the Gospel, Bishop Sullivan stepped out into the empty space between the free and the incarcerated and opened his homily:
“We are very happy to be with you this morning, to pray with you and prepare ourselves to celebrate the birth of Christ,” he said.
Since becoming bishop of the Diocese of Camden in February, 2013, he has made prison ministry a priority. The process of gaining access to the prisons can be lengthy, with each facility requiring its own security clearance. He celebrated his first Mass for inmates in April, 2014 at South Woods State prison. Since that first Mass, he has celebrated 10 Masses for inmates, with a repeat visit to Camden County jail. He hopes to continue visiting the correctional facilities within the diocese annually.
The visits are facilitated by Catholic Charities’ Prison Ministry coordinator for the Diocese, Sister Mary Lou Lafferty, OSF.
Eight of the nine facilities have an active Catholic prison ministry presence, according to Sister Lafferty. Some 65 active volunteers, about 20 of them priests or deacons, visit the various correctional facilities. Lay volunteers and deacons lead Bible study or life skills groups, with deacons also holding Communion services. Priests celebrate the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist.
Pope Francis has drawn more attention to the church’s corporal mercy call to “visit the imprisoned” (he has famously spent two of three of his Holy Thursdays as pope washing the feet of inmates). But during his November visit to Cape May County jail, Bishop Sullivan told the Cape May County Herald that his visit was prompted less by the pope’s example and more by his own priorities as bishop.
“The prisons and jails are part of whatever parish they are located in geographically,” said Sister Lafferty. “Pastors have a responsibility to provide sacramental services within the parish, which in turn is the bishop’s responsibility throughout the entire diocese.”
Inmates at many of the facilities visited by Bishop Sullivan have expressed their gratitude.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve gotten a lot more in touch with my faith,” thanks to participation in a prison ministry group run by Sacred Heart Parish in Camden, said an inmate named Justin at a recent Thanksgiving Mass celebrated by the bishop at Camden County Correctional Facility. “It gives me a feeling of comfort and security in a very uncomfortable place.”
“Jesus said, ‘My Father’s house has many mansions.’ Between drug abuse, addiction, violence, I’ve learned that Satan’s house has many mansions, too,” said fellow inmate, Keith. “I’m just trying to find my way back home.”
Those interested in becoming volunteers with Catholic Charities’ Prison Ministry should contact Sister Mary Lou Lafferty: 856-342-4106, Sr.MaryLou.Lafferty@camdendiocese.org; or visit CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/Prison-Ministry.