April 28, 2023

Men in Plainfield prison ‘so grateful’ of sacraments, time with archbishop

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, principal celebrant of a Mass celebrated at the Plainfield Correctional Facility in Plainfield on March 26, offers a blessing to a man soon to be released from the facility. Deacon Martin “Neil” May stands at left. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, principal celebrant of a Mass celebrated at the Plainfield Correctional Facility in Plainfield on March 26, offers a blessing to a man soon to be released from the facility. Deacon Martin “Neil” May stands at left. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

PLAINFIELD—Jason wears the uniform of an offender serving time in a correctional facility in Plainfield. But his clothes do not define him.

“I was born and raised Catholic,” said Jason, whose last name cannot be given for security purposes. “I’ve been here for four years. I’ve been to a ton of [Communion] services, but this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to actually go to Mass since I was incarcerated. It was awesome.”

That opportunity came on March 26 when Archbishop Charles C. Thompson served as the principal celebrant of a Mass at the correctional facility in Plainfield. Father Sean Danda, pastor of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg, concelebrated. Roughly 30 men attended the Mass, about two-thirds of whom were Catholic.

Many leaned forward, elbows on knees, listening with rapt attention during the homily. One clutched a rosary through the entirety of the Mass. Another, soon to be released, eagerly stepped forward for a special blessing from the archbishop.

Grace continued to flow after the eucharistic feast. Most of the Catholic men hurried to form a line after Mass when it was announced that Father Danda would offer the sacrament of reconciliation.

“It means so much,” said Jason of the opportunity to receive the sacraments. “It definitely is a big weight off my shoulders.”

‘They take their faith seriously’

More than sacramental grace flowed during Archbishop Thompson’s visit. It was also a time of evangelization, catechesis and education as he spent the hour before Mass sharing reflections on the prodigal son parable and the story of Christ’s encounter with the woman at the well, followed by time for questions.

“He put [the Scriptures] into a better perspective,” said Danny, a Baptist. “He told the stories, but he made it really interesting, like telling a story to your child. I was really impressed by everything he said.”

Archbishop Thompson was impressed, too, by the questions the men asked, which ranged from biblical interpretation to Church hierarchy and teaching, to how best to prepare for Easter.

“They asked powerful questions,” the archbishop noted. “They have Bible studies here, and it was clear to me that they really knew a lot about the Scriptures themselves. The word obviously means something to them—they take it seriously, and they take their faith seriously.”

‘You will see the glory of God’

Archbishop Thompson delved further into Scripture during his homily, discussing that Sunday’s Gospel reading of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

He recalled Jesus asking for Lazarus’ tomb to be opened and being told there will be a stench.

“But Jesus calls him out anyway and says, ‘Unbind him’ ” (Jn 11:44), the archbishop noted. “In our lives, we may have moments where we feel bound or things aren’t smelling too good, and we can feel dead or close to death—psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, physically, whatever it might be.

“But Jesus has the power to call us out of it, to untie us, to set us free, to offer a new beginning. … There’s nothing beyond the scope of God’s mercy, God’s power to save, to heal, to redeem.”

In those moments of crisis, he continued, each of us is asked the same question Christ asked Martha in the Gospel reading: “Do you believe?” (Jn 11:26)

To those who dare to answer “yes,” said Archbishop Thompson, Christ will repeat what he told Martha: “You will see the glory of God” (Jn 11:40).

“For us Catholics, the Eucharist is a glimpse” of that glory, he explained. “The very body, blood, soul and divinity of God, Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, is given to us in the Eucharist.”

He went on to note that the first and second readings referred to the “Spirit of God dwelling in us” (Ez 37:14, Rom 8:11). It is that same Spirit given in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and reconciliation, he said.

“In these sacraments, that Spirit comes upon us and dwells within us,” he added. “The life of God in us, even here on Earth, so that we may have something the world cannot provide: eternal life, eternal peace, eternal joy in the kingdom of heaven, free from all anxieties, from all worries, from all woundedness, from all brokenness, from all chaos—if we keep our eyes fixed on Christ and look to no other to be saved.

“He is the resurrection and the life. There is no other.”

‘It shows he cares’

Others came from outside the prison walls to attend the Mass. Among them were women from the prison ministry at St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield, the parish in whose boundaries the correctional facility is located.

“It’s incredible that they got to be with [the archbishop] and spend time with him and have him spend so much time answering their questions,” said Karen Burkhardt, a member of the parish’s prison ministry team. “It shows he cares for them and that he feels that they’re part of his archdiocese.”

Burkhardt and others from the prison ministry regularly visit the offenders at the Plainfield Correctional Facility and the neighboring Heritage Trails Correctional Facility. She said they come for Communion services, discuss Sunday Scripture readings, lead Bible studies, offer guided meditations and pray with the men.

Archbishop Thompson lauded the volunteers in an interview with The Criterion after the Mass.

“The men were talking with me about all the different people that come here on behalf of the Church,” he commented. “One said, ‘You know, the loneliness that you experience is powerful here. [The volunteers] bring this message of love and that we’re not alone.’ ”

Volunteers visit at each of the eight state prisons and one federal prison located in the archdiocese, and priests offer Mass and reconciliation at six of those facilities, said Deacon John Cord, coordinator of the archdiocesan Corrections Ministry.

But the two Plainfield facilities and one in Branchville currently have no priest available to offer the sacraments.

“The need for priests [at the three prisons] is huge,” said Deacon Cord. “We’re looking to get a priest to go in on a more regular basis.”

‘These are people in need of healing’

Archbishop Thompson recognized the need for those in prison to receive the sacraments and the grace they bring.

“They’re here in the archdiocese, and these are people in need of healing,” he said. “They need peace and need God’s grace.

“It’s important to bring Christ to all people, including those on the margins and peripheries of society—to bring Christ to them and to witness Christ in them.”

The men at the Plainfield Correctional Facility “were grateful for the opportunity to go to Mass,” Deacon Cord said. “And they were especially thankful that Father [Danda] was able to hear confessions. As far as I can tell, that was first time in five years a priest has been there for confession.”

The ministerial visit on March 26 was “very important to them,” Deacon Cord added. “They really crave that kind of interaction. After Mass, men were just thanking us. They were so appreciative.”

Jason was among the grateful.

“I’m looking forward to renewing my faith more,” he said. “This [opportunity] definitely helped me do that.”

(To volunteer in prison ministry, check with your parish office to see if a ministry already exists. If not, contact Deacon John Cord at jcord@archindy.org.)

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