.- Tim O’Meara, 50, heartily shook Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Most Rev. John Nienstedt’s hand and grinned broadly, his excitement transparent. He had been anticipating the archbishop’s visit for a while, he said. O’Meara is one of about 990 men who are currently in the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Rush City. Archbishop Nienstedt celebrated Mass and visited with inmates Dec. 15. The visit coincided with Gaudete Sunday — the Sunday of Advent that calls people to rejoice in the Lord.
In his homily, Archbishop Nienstedt spoke about God’s gift of joy and the faithful’s need to rejoice. He also spoke of conversion, which is at the heart of St. John the Baptist’s message in the Gospel.
“These Scriptures speak to everyone in the church, no matter what condition he or she finds themselves,” he said. “Even in this situation of being incarcerated, there can be real joy in the realization that God is here in your midst, calling you to a change of heart. . . .”
“The past is what it is,” he continued. “The future lies open to what you want to make of it.”
Twenty-one men attended the Mass, a number that slightly disappointed inmate Eric Dahlin, 28. “There should be more people than this, but there’s not, and that’s OK,” he said.
“[The archbishop’s visit] means a lot to us,”added Dahlin. “It brings up our day — spiritually and mentally.”
The visit was arranged by Deacon Michael Martin, a parishioner at St. Gregory in North Branch who has been assigned to minister to the offenders in Rush City since his September 2008 ordination.
A time for transformation
After Mass, Archbishop Nienstedt fielded questions from the inmates, who asked about the difference between Catholics and Lutherans, and when a new pastor would be assigned to Sacred Heart in Rush City.
Until his new appointment to St. Albert in Albertville and St. John the Baptist in Dayton Oct. 31, Father Xavier Thelakkatt served as pastor at Sacred Heart and visited the prison twice monthly.
In the absence of an assigned priest, Deacon Martin and other volunteers have offered Communion services in the facility’s modest chapel.
“The Eucharist is important to them because without it they would be left abandoned from their faith,” Deacon Martin said.
Deacon Martin also preaches the Gospel, and the men have a chance to think about it and ask questions.
However, they miss a priest, he said. “The men are yearning for confessions,” he noted.
Prison can be a spiritually transforming time for offenders, said Rush City Correctional Facility chaplain Gail Nord. In the seven months she’s been working there, she’s seen the role faith plays in the lives of some of the men.
“It can give them hope, it can give them meaning, it can give them a foundation to deal with all the challenges of day-to-day life in a place like this,” she said.
The archbishop’s visit was significant to the men because it was a sign that they are remembered, “particularly at this season, which is very difficult,” she said, as men are away from family and friends during the holidays.
Being at the correctional facility has deepened the faith of 51-year-old inmate Jeff Bauer, he said.
“I’m very strong in my Catholic beliefs,” he added. Bauer encourages men to join him for Mass and talks about the Scriptures with them. He also prays the rosary every night, he said.
‘Joy and happiness’ possible
Although this is the first time Archbishop Nienstedt has visited a prison in the archdiocese, he visited prisons while he was bishop of New Ulm and auxiliary bishop of Detroit.
While living at the North American College in Rome, he also visited English-speaking offenders every Saturday at Regina Coeli, a prison named after the convent whose building it repurposed.
“They literally turned the [monastic] cells into cells,” he said. “There was no central heating, no central bathrooms. . . . It was overcrowded,” he recalled.
“So early on, I knew this was a very valuable ministry,” he said.
During Mass, Archbishop Nienstedt prayed for the men and their families. “There were looks of concern on their faces, and skepticism, I suppose; unhappiness,” he said. “What a wonderful Sunday to come to preach joy and happiness.”
Archbishop Nienstedt said he would be “very willing” to visit other correctional facilities within the archdiocese. “I think that’s an important thing for a bishop to do on a regular basis,” he said.
A rewarding ministry
On this particular Sunday, Deacon Martin was accompanied by three volunteers, including Jim Noon, a parishioner at Sacred Heart in Rush City who has been visiting prisons for 10 years, he said.
Dan Chippendale, a parishioner at St. Gregory in North Branch, has also been helping with Mass or Communion services once per month.
“I felt drawn to it,” he said. Yet, initially he was “very intimidated” by the thought of prison ministry, he said. However, as he started to volunteer, his fears were tempered.
“You see the faces of the people, and they’re pleased to see you,” he said.
Deacon Martin describes his experience as “very rewarding.”
“What I appreciate . . . is that for the majority of the men who show up, this is bringing Christ,” he said. “I’m called, as a deacon, to be an icon of Christ, so I bring Christ to them, and they’ve been very receptive.”
Printed with permission from The Catholic Spirit, newspaper from the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.