Prison ministry shares message that God’s mercy is meant for all

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A priest distributed Communion to an inmate during a June 9 Mass at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility in Kansas. (CNS Photo by Karen Bonar)

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
About 75 inmates at the Roederer Correctional Complex near La Grange, Ky., heard that God’s “mercy is for each of us” during a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, the evening of Nov. 5.

The Mass at the state prison was organized in response to Pope Francis’ call for outreach to prisoners in the final days of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which comes to a close on Nov. 20, the Feast of Christ the King.

The Holy Father also celebrated Mass for 1,000 former and current inmates from 12 countries at St. Peter’s Basilica Nov. 6, according to a report from Catholic News Service (CNS). He told them, “Hope is a gift from God” that “must not falter,” though a price must be paid for breaking the law, according to the CNS report.

Closer to home, Archbishop Kurtz shared with his listeners, “Mercy means that God’s love touches the heart of the imperfect and weak.” The archbishop went on to tell those who’d gathered within the prison walls that “we all need God’s mercy and his mercy is for each of us.”

Archbishop Kurtz isn’t new to prison ministry; he celebrates Mass with prisoners at Christmas and other times of the year.

And he isn’t alone. Parishioners across the Archdiocese of Louisville extend God’s mercy in prisons through Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Prison, Jail and Re-entry Ministry. This ministry provides an opportunity for the faithful to fulfill one of the corporal works of mercy — visiting the imprisoned.

There are two parts to prison ministry here in the Louisville archdiocese, said Deacon Lucio Caruso, director of mission at Catholic Charities of Louisville.

The first part is services for individuals who are incarcerated. And then there are re-entry services provided to those about to be released and those who have been released from prison.

YearofMercylogo-11-12-15-wVisiting the imprisoned

Services provided to prisoners include the celebration of Mass, Communion services, prayer services, Stations of the Cross and, in some cases, special programs, such as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) for those interested in the Catholic faith.

Teams of volunteers from parishes provide these services. They become a “Catholic presence” behind bars, said Deacon Caruso.

For example, every Monday evening a team of about 12 volunteers from Epiphany Church and a priest visit the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex near La Grange, Ky. The priest celebrates Mass, usually for 30 or 40 incarcerated men, said Martha Stuber, a member of Epiphany who coordinates this ministry. There are four volunteer diocesan priests, said Stuber.

There’s time before and after the liturgy for volunteers to interact with the men and “share the faith” with them, said Stuber, who has been serving in prison ministry for 20 years. Members of the Epiphany team also return to the prison later in the week to offer RCIA to men who are interested in becoming Catholic.

Catholic Charities serves as a liaison between parish volunteers and the prison, Deacon Caruso said. He noted that having a good working relationship with the prison chaplain is crucial, because the chaplain is the person who works with prison wardens to schedule times for Mass and other services at the prison.

“The Catholic faithful have a right to prayer, to the sacraments and all the things that belong to God’s people,” he said, even when they are locked up. And it means a lot to them, he said. “The men and women value our coming and being with them in prayer.”

For many, he noted, “faith in God has become a vital part of their lives.”

Stuber said that the volunteer team at Epiphany has been committed to the prison ministry at Luther Luckett since 1998.

“The team views their time there as a ministry of presence,” said Stuber. “They come to know many of the inmates and provide a listening ear and support during the most difficult times.”

Deacon Caruso said it’s not the easiest of ministries, but “there’s a need for priests, deacons and baptized people to not be afraid” to do it. He noted that the ministry needs more volunteer priests and deacons.

Re-entry ministry

The second aspect of prison ministry focuses on assisting individuals returning to life outside of prison. Helping them adjust to life outside of prison is challenging, said Deacon Caruso.

“There are so many barriers and difficulties for those who’ve been imprisoned,” he said. “It’s important that Catholic Charities be a vehicle in the area of re-entry.”

Melanie Bishop, a case manager at Catholic Charities, helps individuals settle into life outside prison. Bishop said things most people take for granted — such as a place to live, transportation and basic job skills — can derail a successful transition back into society for many returning from prison.

Finding stability after prison lowers the likelihood that former inmates will return to a life of crime, said Bishop. Having a stable place to live provides an opportunity to turn over a new leaf in a place where “they don’t have to be what they were before,” said Bishop.

Catholic Charities accomplishes this ministry in partnership with two other non-profit agencies — Mission Behind Bars and Beyond and Augustine Hall Transitional Living Center.

The Rev. Dean Bucalos, executive director of Mission Behind Bars and Beyond, said volunteers work through a mentoring program to provide life-skills training classes and support for the women at Dismas Charities-Diersen, a halfway house for women located at 1218 W. Oak Street. A year ago Rev. Bucalos said his ministry received a grant from the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth which was used for training for the mentoring program.

Augustine Hall Transitional Living Center, located at 1455 S. Preston St., was founded by Deacon Keith McKenzie, who serves at St. Augustine Church. The center provides housing and rehabilitation services to men with substance abuse problems.

Bishop works with Deacon McKenzie to help place returning citizens from the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange, Ky., at Augustine Hall. The men can live there for three to six months while they go through the rehabilitation program, find employment and get back on their feet, said Bishop.

Since the partnership was established between Catholic Charities and Augustine Hall in January, two men have successfully completed the program. Catholic Charities provides rent for the resident’s first month at Augustine Hall, a bus pass, clothing from Sister Visitor Center and access to a voucher from the Archdiocese of Louisville for an identification card. Bishop said she also helps the men gain access to government benefits, such as food stamps and medicaid.

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