Sharing faith with the imprisoned

On Nov. 23, as he has many times since coming to the Diocese of Camden, Bishop Dennis Sullivan fulfilled one of the corporal works of mercy: visit the imprisoned.

Accompanied by Father Michael Romano, Deacon Jim Hallman and Catholic Charities executive director Kevin Hickey, he offered two Masses and visited inmates at Bayside Prison in Cumberland County.

The make-shift altar at the prison was a folding table draped with a white linen cloth. There was no crucifix hanging from above. The walls were drab grey. But for the dozens of prisoners who had gathered there, this was a sacred space.

Before the Masses, Bishop Sullivan moved comfortably among the men, many of whom were serving long term or lifetime sentences, as they pressed close to him for a handshake and warm exchange of greetings.

During his homily, Bishop Sullivan recalled a Mass for the Imprisoned celebrated recently by Pope Francis to close out the Jubilee Year of Mercy. He explained how Pope Francis stood before a congregation of some 1,000 prisoners, both men and women from 12 countries, and made them feel welcome at Saint Peter’s Basilica, that it was their safe haven and place of refuge.

Bishop Sullivan invited the prisoners gathered before him to feel the same during this Mass.

Like Pope Francis, Bishop Sullivan urged the prisoners — many of whom had their heads bowed in reverence for most of the service — to never give up hope of God’s mercy, and although they may not be physically free, they can attain freedom in their hearts and in their souls. He urged them to not fall into the trap of being prisoners of a past they cannot change, but to look forward to a future they can build through responsibility and with God’s help.

Deacon Jim Hallman, the Prison Ministry coordinator at Catholic Charities, explained the impact that Bishop Sullivan’s visits have on the men.

“The bishop’s visit always brings excitement to the inmates and his homilies are so personal and inspiring. They are fed, and they take that same message and share it with those who were not there,” he said, “and after the bishop’s visit there is an increase in the number of inmates in the Catholic services the following weeks. That is true evangelization.”

Deacon Hallman also noted how prison visits can be life affirming for all participants. “For the prisoners it is an hour when they come together as a congregation for a liturgy, a prayer service, to hear the Word of God and prepare themselves to receive the Blessed Sacrament,” he explained. “That is when my visit to them fills my heart — as I see their faces after receiving our Lord, some with joy, and others with sincere tears of sorrow. If the Holy Spirit allows me to reach just one inmate each week that is one more soul who has hope.”

Tony Celhar, a Eucharistic Minister and prison volunteer from Christ our Light Parish in Cherry Hill, explained the importance that the Catholic faith has for these imprisoned. “I lead prayer meetings and discussions at this prison. Everyone brings their Bibles, and they know the Bible inside out. They are all active and insightful participants, they’re not shy or afraid to contribute. They’re surprised, but so thankful, that I would take the time to visit them.”

Celhar remains committed to preparing these prisoners for that rehabilitated life beyond the walls. Along with the protection of society from dangerous individuals, rehabilitation should also be a companion goal of imprisonment so that the “lost” can be “found” and restored to a right relationship with God and with others.

“Being released from prison is a terrifying thing to think about for them,” Celhar said. “Many of them don’t have kids or families or any friends who aren’t imprisoned. All they know is what’s behind these walls. They have no idea what they’ll do when they’re out. But their faith brings them hope for a future.

“Sometimes people ask me what strengthens my faith,” Celhar said, “and every time, I say that it’s volunteering at Bayside Prison. It forces me to personally delve into the readings during my discussions with the inmates.”

Reentry Services at Catholic Charities is a growing body of services that reach out to those who are incarcerated within institutions located in South Jersey during the period of their imprisonment and beyond. The prison ministry program connects volunteers to opportunities for ministry in one of the nine prisons or jails in the Diocese of Camden and provides them with training and resources. To learn more about the program, visit: https://catholiccharitiescamden.org/reentry-services/