Bishop administers Sacraments to prison inmates

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

BOURNE, Mass. — The five inmates who had just received the Sacraments of Initiation huddled together in the middle of a mass of prison ministry volunteers, embraced in a giant group hug.

One of the volunteers called out: “Is our God awesome or what?”

To which the assembled group loudly responded: “Oh, yeah!”

A guard on duty who was intently watching through a window in the locked door smiled, breaking his otherwise stern countenance.

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One of the inmates, who took the name “Peter” during his Baptism earlier that evening, said he was deeply moved by the experience and embraced another prisoner after the celebration.

“It feels purifying,” he told The Anchor. “I feel joy in my heart and my love for God has become even stronger.”

Although he was raised Catholic, Peter confessed he had let his faith lapse over the years and had all but abandoned his religion since beginning his prison term.

“But I figured it was a good time to start over again and renew (my faith),” he said.

Peter and his fellow detainees at the Barnstable County Correctional Facility in Bourne were welcomed into the Church by Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., during a special Liturgy inside the prison chapel on August 22.

It marked the first time that a sitting diocesan bishop had administered the Sacraments of Initiation to inmates at the facility.

“I was glad to celebrate the Sacraments of Initiation at the jail for the five inmates,” Bishop da Cunha told The Anchor. “For me, is was a powerful experience, as I was hoping it would be. I was touched by the simplicity of the setting, the attentiveness of the inmates and volunteers, and the spirit of devotion of all present.”

In his homily, the bishop recalled how St. Paul — even though he himself was imprisoned for his beliefs — never stopped “living and proclaiming Christ to the world.”

“They constrained his body, but his mind, his Spirit, his faith, his words reached out beyond the walls of the prison and reached the faithful: those who believed in Christ,” he said. “Faith frees us, faith gives us the freedom to live a life in God’s grace, in God’s presence, in God’s love — and nothing else can stop us from that. St. Paul is a testimony of that — how he was free, even in prison, to live his faith, to practice his faith, to proclaim his faith, to announce the Good News of Christ in the world.”

Drawing comparisons between the five newly-initiated and the early Christians who were often “persecuted, arrested or killed because of their faith,” Bishop da Cunha said they should now set an example to similarly lead others to Christ.

“Now you have a responsibility to be an instrument of God’s grace to others, to help your brothers in their own journey of faith,” he said. “To behave in a way so that others will look to you and say: ‘I like the way he lives his faith.’”

As new members of the Church, the bishop also advised the inmates that regardless of the mistakes they’ve made or the offenses for which they were currently serving time, there’s always the promise of Reconciliation.

“You know, every computer keyboard has a delete key, right? Well, our delete key is the Sacrament of Confession, which deletes all our mistakes and corrects them,” Bishop da Cunha said. “The Sacrament of Confession washes us and removes the stain and the dirt and makes us clean again. That’s the beauty of our Church, of our faith when we make a mistake.”

That message certainly hit home with “Michael,” one of the newly-baptized.

“I was brought up Catholic, but I made a mistake quite some years ago when I was 15 years old,” he said. “I made the mistake and I tried faking my Confirmation. But today I feel awesome. I’m turning my life back over … and it’s time for rebirth and a new way of living.”

Michael said he now felt obligated to serve God and to make amends for his past transgressions.

“And I still owe my church’s St. Vincent de Paul (Society) $20, so I’ve got to make that up to them,” he added.

After pouring Holy Water over the heads of the three inmates who were baptized (the other two received Confirmation), Bishop da Cunha placed a white stole over each of the men’s necks, saying: “You have become now a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. Receive this white garment, your new Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of Heaven.”

It was a pivotal moment for “Anthony,” who was never baptized and whose entire family is Catholic.

“Now that I’m baptized, I’m a Catholic now, too,” he said. “I got a little teary-eyed in the beginning and I just couldn’t stop. It really feels good to have been a part of this and to have been baptized for the first time.”

“Seeing some of these men crying during the Mass — a grown up, tough man, just allowing the grace of God to touch his heart and allow himself to be touched — was a powerful moment to witness,” Bishop da Cunha said. “When I see a person crying during the celebration of a Sacrament, it is a sign that the power of God’s grace has reached the depths of his heart, and that makes all our efforts and all we invest worthwhile.”

Bishop da Cunha likewise offered a message of hope to the five inmates, noting that today they began a new life in the Church.

“Maybe you look forward to the day when you will be released from here and start a new life out there, but that new life begins here today, with your receiving the Sacraments and accepting the faith and the grace of God into your lives,” the bishop said. “So today is a new beginning for your life!”

The bishop praised the ongoing efforts of the chaplains — especially Father Riley J. Williams and Deacons Daniel M. Donovan, Ralph Guerra and Bruce Bonneau — along with the many prison ministry volunteers at the Barnstable County Correctional Facility who “dedicate so much of their time to share their faith with the inmate population and to bring the presence of the Lord into their lives during such a difficult time for them.”

“May the Good Lord reward all of them for their good work,” he said. “I know we have a wonderful team of volunteers and, thanks to you all, I’m sure that the Word of God, prayers and the Sacraments will continue to be celebrated here.”

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