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placeholder January 4, 2016   •   VOL. 54, NO. 1   •   Oakland, CA

Prison ministry volunteers and representatives of Santa Rita jail gather around Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, and Rev. Alexander Castillo after Mass in the jail chapel Dec. 26.

Bishop: The church is a place
to go when no one else wants you

On the second day of Christmas, Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, bishop of Oakland celebrated Mass in the chapel of Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, with about three dozen inmates seated in the pews.

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"For us Catholic, Christmas lasts until Jan. 6," the bishop greeted the men. "Don't think you've missed out. I'm glad you're here. You stepped forward to come (to Mass)."

The Dec. 26 visit marked the third Christmas season the bishop has visited a detention facility to celebrate Mass. Two years ago, he went to Santa Rita, where he celebrated Mass in what was then the gymnasium. In 2014, he celebrated a Christmas Eve Mass at the West County Detention Facility in Richmond.

Rev. Diane Carrihill, one of four chaplains at the jail, said such visits mean so much. Tension is high at the jail during the holidays, she said. "There's depression," she said. "Depression leads to anger. Anger leads to fights."

Among the ways faith communities show inmates they care for them, she said, was through a toy drive, at which almost 300 children of inmates received presents donated, in large part, by parishioners at local Catholic churches.

With a choir composed of a half-dozen parishioners of churches in Dublin, Pleasanton, Livermore and San Ramon, "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Joy to the World" filled the small, simple chapel. Geoffrey Torres, musician at St. Raymond Parish in Dublin, accompanied the singers. Rev. Alexander Castillo, the bishop's episcopal secretary, participated in the Mass.

Richard Denoix, a parishioner at the Catholic Community of Pleasanton who has been a volunteer in prison ministry for 13 years, coordinated the details for the Mass. Denoix and his wife, Lenore Colarussa-Denoix, who led the singing, are regular visitors, ministering once or twice a month, at Santa Rita.

Two handmade banners hung behind the wooden altar. The one on the left read, "What can wash away my sins." The banner on the right read, "Nothing but the blood of Jesus."

In words old and new, Bishop Barber bridged a story from recent headlines and one more than 2,000 years old, in his homily. He told of a church in New York, where a newborn baby was left abandoned in the Nativity manger.

When a parish priest was asked what he wanted to do, Bishop Barber recounted, "He told the people in the parish, and four or five families offered to adopt the baby."

"They did not press charges. In many states, the church is a safe haven. If you have a baby and can't care for it, you can leave it.

"The church is refuge," he said. "The church is a place to go when no one else wants you. You'll be taken care of. That manger where Mary and Joseph put their child, that's the whole beginning of the Catholic Church. That's where we trace our roots."

The first people who came to the manger at the angels' invitation, he said, were shepherds.

"Most of us have never met shepherds," he said. "The shepherd's job, at the time of Christ, was considered so lowly they were not allowed to give testimony in court."

The second people invited to the manger, he said, were the Magi, the three kings.

"You have shepherds, then you have kings," he said. "That is a symbol that everybody in between is invited to come to the manger."

He told them, too, of an inmate at San Quentin State Prison, where the bishop's brother, Rev. Stephen Barber, served as chaplain for seven years.

The inmate who assisted at the altar was serving a 20-years-to-life sentence for killing his girlfriend. "His mother visited him every Sunday," the bishop recalled. "After about 10 years the parents of the girl he killed came to the prison, met with him and forgave him."

When he became eligible for parole, he was turned down three years in a row.
"The fourth year he came and talked to my brother," the bishop said. "My brother gave him a rosary. 'Put this in your pocket. Hold onto it if you have hard questions.'"

The inmate returned to the chapel after the parole hearing, and laid in front of the altar, his parole granted.

After his release, he went to college, got married and has a child.

"He came to Mass every single Sunday," the bishop said. "Like the shepherds and the Magi, he came. He was invited and he came.

"You make room for Christ in your life," the bishop said, "He will take care of you."

At the closing the bishop thanked the Santa Rita staff, as well as the inmates. "On behalf of all of the Catholics in the Diocese of Oakland — 84 parishes, 50 schools, 120 priests, 500,000 people — Merry Christmas.

"Our doors are open to you when you get out," he said.

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