Thursday, September 29, 2005

Laughing at my Mass Kit

When I was ordained to the priesthood, I received a gift that I thought would rarely be dragged out. It was a portable Mass Kit. You can imagine my reasoning. "After all, I don't need it for vacations. And I am not planning on doing too many home Masses (although I could imagine saying Mass in a homebound person's home if needed), so I don't know what this will be good for." Of course, thankfully, God's plans and planning is always better than mine.

I am looking at my Mass Kit as it sits in the hallway. This has been its second excursion from the rectory this week. Each week I say Mass at two prisons: one in Helena and the other here in town. If we were all being honest here, I would tell that I never look forward to loading that case and pulling out some vestments and taking them to a prison to say Mass. The prison officials dig through your things (although I must confess that every guard I have dealt with has been very cordial and professional), then you have to carry everything to the chapel, unload and do all that in reverse when you are done. But whenever I feel crappy and tired on my way there, I rarely feel that way coming back. I never thought I would enjoy working with prisoners as much as I do. I did have to take a little hiatus here and there but I am back to full speed.

I know I have to be careful about giving away too many details but I want you to know what I see when I deal with a prisoner. I see someone who because of one decision different from my own resides behind iron bars and razor wire. I see someone who did not bounce back from sadness or mistreatment the way I might have or you might have. In other words, I see someone who is different than me only by the narrowest of margins.

These prisoners tonight at the local prison are also so hungry for the Truth of the Gospel. One gentleman said to me, "I have been in the system many years and you are the first priest I have seen." I don't doubt it. Going to the prison is unpleasant, in that you deal with people after a series of disastrous life choices. Further, when it comes to the Faith, you can count on a generally low level. It reminds me of working with teenagers -- for many of them they haven't heard the Good News since boyhood. Another gentleman apologized for being late and then added, "I haven't been to Mass since I was 8." I told him the only thing that mattered at this point, "I'm glad you are home." We'll work on confessions next week.

And maybe that's why prison ministry is so hard and so essential. You, who visit the prisoner, are reminding them to look for their true home. The decisions that they thought would lead to happiness led to a prison cell. You and I get the privilege and showing them that true happiness, the following of Christ, loving His Mother and the Church, serving God and neighbor in the perfection of charity, this kind of happiness is available now and is waiting for us in the life to come.

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