Thirty-nine inmates rose from their chairs inside Southern State Prison in Delmont and sang “Lord, you have come to the seashore” as Bishop Dennis Sullivan walked into the large gymnasium during an early Thanksgiving Mass on Nov. 20. It was an appropriate hymn in the correctional facility located just a few miles from the southern coastal region of the state. Their voices boomed and echoed throughout the spacious room.
“The inmates were so enthused about the upcoming Mass with Bishop Sullivan,” said Sister Mary Cronin, Catholic Charities’ Prison Ministry coordinator, who organized the Mass and prepared the inmates for weeks prior to it. “They practiced for the Mass and sang their hearts out at choir practice because they wanted everything to be just right.”
Accompanying Bishop Dennis Sullivan was Father Mark Cavagnaro, pastor of Saint Brendan the Navigator Parish in Avalon, seminarian Carlo Joseph G. Santa Teresa, and several prison ministry volunteers.
On any other day, the room serves as a visitation area for family members and loved ones. But, on this evening, it was a place to practice and embrace their faith and receive Communion. The men listened intently to the Gospel readings about Zacchaeus, a crooked tax collector who repented and redeemed himself after an encounter with Jesus.
“Through this encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus was able to have a change of heart, to be saved and redeemed,” Bishop Sullivan explained during his homily, switching seamlessly between English and Spanish. “He wanted to make things right. All of us can do the same.”
Inmates nodded and the room remained silent as Bishop also addressed the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. “Even here,” he said, motioning toward the walls, “you can still practice thanks. Maybe it’s a loved one. Maybe it’s someone you know here. Even in prison, you can be thankful to God.”
The message seemed to resonate with the inmates as their enthusiasm continued throughout the Mass: the well-rehearsed congregational responses, smiles and heartfelt handshakes during the Sign of Peace, and their devout Sign of the Cross at the Final Blessing.
“I was completely in awe of their reverence and respect,” remarked Sister Mary Cronin. “Their hearts were present in that room.”
Toward the end of the Mass, one of the prison ministry volunteers approached Bishop Sullivan, whispering and motioning toward a certain inmate whom Bishop called upon. “Please,” Bishop said, addressing the inmate, “tell us your father’s name.” The inmate shyly said his father’s name and explained that his father was in very poor health. Thirty-nine heads bowed as the Bishop offered a special prayer for the inmate’s ailing parent.
Echoes of the final hymn filled the room once again as the Mass came to an end. The inmates patiently waited in line to greet Bishop Sullivan, waiting for their turn to shake his hand, ask for blessings and, for some, share a laugh.
The Mass is one of many that Bishop Sullivan celebrates in correctional facilities throughout the Diocese, his next being held close to Christmas at Bayside State Prison.
For those interested in volunteering with Catholic Charities’ Prison Ministry, visit www.catholiccharitiescamden.org/prison-ministry/