Bringing Mass and mercy to those behind bars

Photo by Mary McCusker
After celebrating a special Lenten Mass at Salem County Prison during Holy Week, Bishop Dennis Sullivan greets the 40 men and women who attended.

For Christians everywhere, Holy Week is a time of reflection on God‘s mercy and love. This spiritual reckoning applies in a particularly poignant way to those incarcerated.

On Wednesday of Holy Week, Bishop Dennis Sullivan came to Salem County Prison to celebrate Mass with approximately 40 prisoners and to share in Christ’s messages of hope and redemption abundant in the Lenten and Easter seasons. Also in attendance were Catholic Charities staff including executive director Kevin Hickey, volunteers and prison staff.

Standing in the prison gymnasium beneath inmates’ artwork which read “Jesus, remember me,” Bishop Sullivan spoke with compassion to the hushed, attentive congregation.

“Everyone experiences temptation, and we may find ourselves getting caught up in desperate situations,” the bishop said. “Lent is a time to pause and step back from situations that lead to sin, time to see how God is at work in us and in the world and, especially, a time to return to the Lord.”

For the liturgy celebration, the men were seated on one side of the gym, women on the other side, with the altar placed in the middle, covered in a simple white tablecloth and decorated with purple flowers.

While preaching on the Gospel readings, Bishop Sullivan explained that Wednesday of Holy Week is sometimes referred to as “Spy Wednesday,” since it is traditionally considered the day Judas conspired with local authorities to betray Jesus.

The bishop reflected on the tragic figure of Judas. “We must remember,” he said, that “Jesus did not forget Judas. Judas forgot Jesus. Let us not do that, and let us never forget that we need to be with him in every way we can. We must stay close to God who loves us, teaches us and shows us the way.”

About 2.3 million people are housed in various detention facilities in the United States, with another 5 million on probation or parole.

While the Catholic Church has always acknowledged the appropriateness of punishing individuals justly convicted of crimes, it also promotes the importance of coupling punishment with compassion and charity toward those imprisoned. Tending to the spiritual and emotional needs of incarcerated populations is given prominence in the Catholic Church as one of the Corporal Works of Mercy, and Pope Francis has repeatedly highlighted detention ministry throughout his pontificate.

Responding to this mission in the Diocese of Camden is Catholic Charities’ Prison Ministry, providing services in nine facilities throughout South Jersey. Prison Ministry coordinator, Sister Mary Cronin, who organized the Holy Week services at Salem County Prison, described the two-fold goals of Catholic Charities work in prison institutions.

“We provide a Catholic presence for those currently residing in prison facilities, as well as assistance to those re-entering society following completion of their prison sentences. We want to help inmates and their families maintain dignity, and to guide the incarcerated to find purpose and meaning in their lives, especially when it comes to their personal relationship to the Lord.”

Additionally, the prison ministry connects volunteers to service opportunities within the prisons or jails, and provides them with the training and resources necessary to interact with inmates in a safe and positive way. The program aims to spiritually strengthen those currently serving prison time and to help those leaving the criminal justice system get back on their feet and avoid the cycle of recidivism.

Concluding the Mass with a final blessing, the bishop exclaimed, “Let the Easter miracle touch all of you. God bless you all.”

A choir of inmates filled the room with strains of “How Great Thou Art,” as each prisoner shared some personal words and laughed with the bishop and other clergy members in attendance. These 40 inmates exited the hall, carrying the Lenten message of repentance and the Easter message of hope in their hearts.