'Wonderful day' as bishop says Mass at jail
Sometimes, a cathedral is made of cinderblock, with the words "Multipurpose Room" stenciled on the door. Sometimes, a crozier is considered a weapon and must be left outside. But at a small table, covered with a white tablecloth, with a small crucifix flanked by two tea lights, a simple offering of bread and a touch of wine became the Body and Blood of Christ.
Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, had celebrated Christmas Eve Mass last year at the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County. Father Helmut Richter, who ministers to the Richmond inmates on the fourth Saturday and fourth Sunday each month, had arranged an additional Mass before Christmas.
As Olig and a half-dozen prison ministry participants set about transforming the multipurpose room for Mass, the bishop helped unstack the four dozen plastic chairs and arrange them around the altar that Jo Beth Strawn set up.
"This is what you do in the Navy," said the bishop, who serves as a chaplain in the Naval Reserve.
As the inmates, dressed in either green or yellow uniforms, filed into the room, the bishop stood at the door. "Welcome to Mass," he said, shaking hands with the men, who were offered worship aids in English or Spanish.
With music provided by what Mercy Sister Carmel Crimmins described as a "boom box," the congregation sang, "O Come Emmanuel."
"Thank you for coming to Mass," the bishop, dressed in purple vestments, said in greeting the gathering. "We're going to call this our Christmas Mass. If you can't get out to church, we'll bring Christ to you."
Missionaries of Charity Sister John Janice and Sister Marisa, dressed in the familiar white with blue trim habit worn by Mother Teresa, founder of their order, read the day's readings in English and Spanish.
After Father Richter proclaimed the Christmas Gospel, Bishop Barber, in his homily, said that when he was saying Mass at San Quentin, and going around the yard, he noted that some inmates used their time in prison to improve their bodies.
"What about your spirit?" he asked. "Man is made of body and soul."
"The body is going to decay no matter what," he said. "What about your soul? It is never going to die."
Bishop Barber offered a suggestion: "Spend time improving your spirit, your soul. The state may imprison your body but they cannot imprison your soul," he said.
He told the congregation about the Carmelite nuns, who from within their "self-imposed imprisonment" within the walls of their monastery, pray for people's needs.
"And things happen," he said. "Things change.
"You have that same power," he said. "You have access to God. I encourage you. Talk to Christ, talk to his Mother Mary. Tell them for what you want. Ask for help."
He told them sometimes incarcerated people feel they aren't helping their loved ones. "You can pray for them and give them spiritual help from here," he said.
"We come here on behalf of Christ, because of Christmas and because when Pope Francis was made pope, the first place he went outside the Vatican was to a jail to say Mass," he said. "We want to continue that, and to tell you how much Christ loves you. No one can say, 'Nobody loves me, nobody cares' because Christ came down from heaven through the womb of Mary. Our Lord God the Father went through a lot of trouble to send his son in human form.'
"Call down blessings on your loved ones and watch what happens," he said.
During the prayer of the faithful, the congregation was invited to add intentions, and several did, with some offering testimony.
"I want to say amen to every prayer and testimony," the bishop said.
At Communion, almost every person in the congregation approached, either for Communion or a blessing from Bishop Barber and Father Richter.
After Mass, there was a short time for questions and answers. A couple of men said they had been altar servers growing up.
"Is your church the one by Lake Merritt?" asked one man. He said he and his wife had been there before.
"Come and see me," the bishop said.
As the time came for the men to return to their cells, the bishop moved among the congregation, offering each man a holy card, a handshake and hope.
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