A monk ventures to visit inmates and bring them the sacraments for the first time since the lockdown of February 2020
Just one verse each day.
For many of us, COVID-life halted many of our social interactions with one another. We found ourselves missing our communities. For the inmates at the local prison where I serve —alongside other monastic priests and our Brother Zachary, who coordinates the Catholic ministry—life was just as chaotic in the prison as it was for many of us on the “outside.”
I was ordained a priest this summer on June 27, 2021. Two weeks later I heard confessions and presided at Mass for a small group of Catholic inmates. This was the first time they had received the sacraments since the first lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic. We were the first volunteers or family, for that matter, visit them. I have been involved in prison ministry off and on since high school – so, for about 17 years. It has been a grace to now preside at Mass in prison, and, even more so, a tremendous grace to be some of the first from the “outside” to be physically present to the inmates and pray and worship together with them.
The experience of isolation
Inmates were isolated, and this time not for bad behavior. If they transferred from one facility, they remained in isolation, while a staff member brought them a sack lunch or dinner. The food is not all that great in prison, but the inmates are certainly tired of peanut butter sandwiches and bologna sandwiches – the common staple of their diet during the height of COVID. After Mass recently, I sat down with a group of about 10 inmates and asked them how they managed life and faith during COVID.
I took the opportunity to ask the inmates I serve a few questions. I wanted people to hear their about their experiences. My basic questions to the inmates included: “What was it like in here for you during COVID?” “What challenges did you face?” “How did you hold on to your faith and hope during this past year and a half?” To protect the anonymity of the inmates where I serve as chaplain, I will present their stories and reflections in general terms.
Clinging to the Rosary
The first inmate to respond said that the memorized prayers that he knew, including the Rosary and its mysteries, helped him hold on to his faith. This inmate is a repeat offender, and he reentered prison right as COVID was spreading rapidly in the United States. He was familiar with many of us Catholic ministers, so he was looking forward to returning to Mass and the other programs we facilitate: Catholic faith formation and Bible studies. He felt a little lost when he found out we would not be returning, and that is when he said, “The memorized prayers were what really helped keep me on a good path while in prison and during the COVID lockdown.” Needless to say, he had a huge grin on his face when we were all able to be together again. We were surprised and a little let down to see him back in prison, but we were also grateful that he still has a desire to grow in his faith and be part of the faith community at the prison.
Fear of losing family
One young inmate said that he contracted COVID three different times. He lost his sense of taste and smell for a time, but otherwise he felt healthy. He had to move to various areas within the prison with the other COVID-positive inmates: the gym, the chapel, and other non-dorm areas. He learned that his mother had COVID, and he feared the worst for her since he could not be present. If a family member of an inmate dies while in prison, he cannot attend the funeral, and this inmate shared that the inmate is then left to deal with that death on his own. Fortunately, his mother recovered from her COVID illness, but all during that time, this inmate felt a sense of anxiety because he did not know how his mother would react to the virus. Many people felt alone during the pandemic, and I can only imagine the elevated sense of isolation in prison during the pandemic.
Streaming Word on Fire, Holy Mass
Another inmate was at another facility during the unknowns of COVID. That facility made accommodations that volunteers could visit the inmates and lead worship – separated by a glass divider. While it was not the same as “normal” times, this inmate was grateful that the prison and the volunteers improvised. In addition to improvised worship spaces during COVID, the inmates also explained to me that they have tablets like iPads that they can use to communicate with family, and they also used them to view worship services. The chaplains at the prison helped the Catholic inmates tune in to content from Bishop Robert Barron as well as live-streams of liturgy from the local Archdiocese.
A new day dawns
In general, the inmates were a little apprehensive to open up, but I sensed more than anything that they are extremely grateful that we volunteers have returned to pray with them in-person. It is as if they have forgotten the past and the isolation, and they are now hungering with grateful hearts to encounter Christ together with one another and with us volunteers. I encouraged them to follow the lead of one of their peers in prison, that God-forbid, if we cannot return to worship with them in-person because of new COVID cases, that they recite their memorized prayers, the rosary, and dive deep into Scripture.
Let us all pray for those who feel alone, including prisoners, that they may know the love, mercy, and comfort of Christ, and let us pray that COVID subsides and volunteers all around the world can continue ministering to those on the margins of society. If you are considering prison ministry as a possible way of serving the Body of Christ, go for it. I often receive more than I give, and it has been one of the best ways I have encountered Christ in the Church. Prison ministry is mutually life-giving, and it is a blessing to journey with those who are really striving to work with Christ to turn their lives around.