Leininger first began his work in prison ministry at a county jail more than 10 years ago. He worked there for six years, but the inmates there had sentences of no longer than a year, and he wanted a ministry where he could develop stronger relationships over time.
During the last couple of years, he has become more serious about prison ministry, retiring from his teaching job at Clemson University and entering the diaconate. Now, he leads the prison ministry for Perry, managing the schedules for priests and volunteers, and coordinating activities.
The ministry is divided into two weekly commitments - Thursday Mass and Friday catechesis. Mass is celebrated by alternating priests: Father McClellan from St Andrew in Clemson, Father Dwight Longenecker from Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, Father Patrick Tuttle from St. Anthony of Padua in Greenville, and Father Williams, who is also the parochial vicar at St. Mary Magdalene in Simpsonville.
A specially selected inmate known as an "inside coordinator" sets up the altar, passes out rosaries or Bibles if requested, and obtains permission slips for men to exit their cells for the service. The attendance for Mass can range between 8 and 18 men.
"We have a number of people that come to Mass on Thursday that aren't Catholic either," said Leininger. "They'll come in just like in a regular church, cross their arms, and get a blessing. Now that was happening last year, and then we asked some of these men if they want to get brought into the church. Then we started a formal catechism with them."
The weekly catechetical classes are two hours long. Similar to RCIA, they study a variety of theological topics and sometimes watch Christian movies on the lives of saints. Among other lessons, Leininger said the class reviews the Eucharist and the history of the Church, including discussions on the Church councils and major heresies.
The class is also centered on prayer, he said. At a recent session, Leininger printed out worksheets for a novena and initiated a nine-day series of prayers for the sanctity of life.
Catechesis in prisons does pose its own set of obstacles, he noted, and it often takes longer than other RCIA programs. He said there are times when the prisons are on lockdown and outside religious groups cannot enter or prisoners get sent back to their cells early before the meeting has finished.
There are also inmates who transfer from another prison during the catechesis process but have to start all over because RCIA can differ depending on the institution. He said this will be a point of discussion at an upcoming meeting of prison volunteers. The hope is to unify the process enough that someone who transfers will not have to restart the program.
Leininger said prison ministry has been a powerful experience for him, witnessing the joy and life this ministry brings to inmates. He recalled one instance when a prison lockdown resulted in him and the inside coordinator being the only people present at a catechetical class.
After talking for about an hour, the inmate - who was serving a life sentence - told him, "The two hours I get to spend with the Catholic Church each week are when I feel more at home than any other time of the week."
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"That one statement keeps me going - when I take an hour drive to get there, and then they won't let me in, but I'll still come back the next week," he said. "If I don't get in, I know they're missing it more than I am and it keeps me going every week."
Fr. Williams stressed that while the inmates in prison may have made mistakes in their lives, their circumstances do not detract from their value - or their need for the sacraments as "spiritual food for the journey."
"There's nothing greater that we can give than our love and attention [and] God's grace working through us to help them see themselves for who they are and where they need to go. We're all sinners and need to draw closer to God," he said.
"So no matter whether we are in prison, no matter whether we're in an elderly home, no matter whether we're here in the parish or in the home, the sacraments are given for all to guide all of us there."
Perry West is a staff writer for Catholic News Agency. He graduated from Franciscan University with his bachelor's in English. Prior to his job at CNA, he worked in construction staffing and coffee.