By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
FORT MADISON — Thirteen inmates rise from their chairs inside the Iowa State Penitentiary chapel and sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” during an early Christmas Mass Dec. 20 with Bishop Thomas Zinkula.
“The inmates obviously can’t leave the penitentiary to attend Mass at a church somewhere, so we, the Church, need to bring the Mass to them,” Bishop Zinkula says later.
“Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled,” the inmates and prison ministry volunteers sing as Bishop Zinkula follows Deacon David Sallen and Father Joseph Phung in procession down the short aisle to the portable altar. The clergy are wearing white vestments to signify the Christmas celebration. The bishop wears a bright, multicolored stole over his chasuble.
Iowa State Penitentiary, a maximum security prison built in a campus-like setting, houses 700 inmates. The new facility, completed in 2013, is just up the hill from the old prison. Holy Family Parish in Fort Madison (where Fr. Phung, the pastor, and Deacon Sallen serve) — considers the inmates as part of the parish.
“It’s good to be with you guys to celebrate an early Christmas Mass,” the bishop tells the inmates. He shares with them that as a priest of the Archdiocese of Dubuque he celebrated Sunday Mass once a month for years at Anamosa State Penitentiary. “It was one of the things I enjoyed most in my priesthood.” Memory shared, the bishop then begins the Penitential Rite, praying, “I’m a sinner. We’re all sinners … we need a Savior.”
Jeremiah M., a convert to Catholicism while in prison, approaches the ambo to give the first reading from Isaiah. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” begins Jeremiah, who is serving a long sentence for a bank robbery and high-speed chase that resulted in two officers being shot, according to news reports. Jeremiah can’t change what happened, but now he’s trusting in someone greater than himself to provide guidance. “You can feel Jesus throughout the day,” he tells The Catholic Messenger. “It brings hope to your life in a negative setting.”
Shaun H., convicted of second-degree murder, gives the second reading from the Book of Titus, which speaks of the grace of God, saving all and training all to reject godless ways and worldly desires. Shaun, a lifelong Catholic, knows that even though he committed a terrible wrong, “Jesus loves us and we’re not alone. Every day is spread with nitty gritty things. I know Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior.”
A homily of hope
After Deacon Sallen proclaims the Gospel, Bishop Zinkula approaches the ambo to deliver his homily, but not before telling a story that resonates with the inmates. Years ago when he was in graduate school, his intramural flag football team had the opportunity to play a couple of games at the Anamosa prison with an eager team of inmates. “We scored a touchdown and kicked the extra point. The football went through the goalposts and over the prison wall,” the bishop recalled. “The inmates were saying, ‘I’ll go get it!’ I’ll go get it!”
In his homily, the bishop tells another story, about the transformation of a 5-foot piece of tree trunk he spotted while clearing brush on his brother’s property. Over the winter the bishop cut, chiseled and sanded the piece into what one relative described as “urban art.” God allowed that blob of wood to become what it was destined to be. Relating that story to the incarnation, the bishop notes that the infant Jesus lying in the manger is the supreme symbol of weakness. But people see something special in that helpless infant; they see a Savior.
“What do we see when we look at the manger scene?” the bishop asks his prison congregation. “Do we simply see an infant, a baby? … Or when we look into the crib, do we see our Savior, the Messiah? There is a critical connection between the manger and the crucifix, between the birth and death of Jesus… which was the means of our salvation.
“… Christmas is Easter in wintertime,” the bishop continues. “The wood of the crib becomes the wood of the cross.” Symbolic connections between the birth and death of Jesus abound in the Gospel, the bishop points out. So, too, does the entrance song, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, which includes these words: “Born that we no more may die, Born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.”
He poses another question: “When we look at other people, what do we see? Do we see something special? Do we see the image and likeness of God? Do we help each other to become the person God destined us to be? … We should see Christ in others – especially those who are struggling. Maybe it’s the black man thirsting for justice when there’s racism in our culture. Maybe it’s the immigrant … maybe it is someone who feels stripped of their dignity due to sexual harassment … or someone in prison… Do we see Jesus in those who are in prison?”
“Jesus wants to work through us … God wants us to see Christ in each other and to help one another to become the person God destined each of us to be.”
Feast and photos
After Mass, the inmates pose for a photo with Bishop Zinkula. They ask afterwards when the photo might be ready and how they can obtain a copy of their own. “It’s not every day someone takes a picture with an inmate,” says Aaron M., who is in prison on a drug charge. He appreciates how nice the bishop is and how he relates to the inmates with stories. Aaron wants the photo as a memento.
A “feast” follows the photo session. The inmates, who with parish help, paid for this catered meal, lay out a spread of turkey, rice, rye rolls, asparagus, blueberries and strawberries, green Jello, chips and ice cream. The only table service permitted: paper plates and plastic forks.
“This is wonderful to have dinner with all you fellows,” volunteer Jean Gunn of Holy Family Parish says to an inmate as she waits to fill her plate. “It’s very special to be here.” “What’s special is the light that comes in,” fellow parishioner and volunteer Ruth Coffey observes, nodding toward the beam of light passing through a chapel window. Two other volunteers here today, Russell Savage and Carlene Mayer, are also
Holy Family parishioners.
Fr. Phung and other priests rotate celebrating Mass once a month at the prison. “It’s a great opportunity to see the faith of the people who are in this environment, the very vibrant faith, the joy you can see in their faces when they come to worship,” he says. “I enjoy them, and celebrating with them as a priest.”
Inmate David M., a college graduate serving a life sentence for murder, is grateful for the clergy’s presence at the prison and excited that the bishop made it for the Christmas celebration. “He seems like a very social guy. He seems very smart, nice, and delightful.” But David also appreciates the ministry of Deacon Sallen. “He has really helped us grow in our faith. I’m grateful he’s been able to bring more people to help us grow in our faith.”
It may be challenging for clergy to preach to people who are incarcerated because they live different lives than people on the outside, says David, a lifelong Catholic. “But you can still apply (the message) to your life inside.” He tutors other inmates so that they can earn their general education diplomas. “I’m learning to help others. It gives me mercy; it gives me purpose.”
A prayer request
After hearing a confession and saying goodbye to the inmates, Bishop Zinkula packs up his vestments and makes the chilly walk from Activity Building 7 to the administration center. Associate Warden of Security John Fedler shakes the bishop’s hand and pulls him aside to make a request: pray for the administrators to make good decisions and for the safety of the personnel and inmates. Several incidents of violence had occurred in recent months at the prison.
Reflecting on his visit to the prison, Bishop Zinkula says, “I found it to be a meaningful experience. Inmates know what it means to be saved. … All of us, some more than others, have darkness within us or we live in a dark place of some sort. This darkness needs to be uncovered and transformed by the light of Christ.” The bishop hopes the inmates understand that “the church cares about them and the practice of their faith. The loving and merciful Lord offers them hope.”
Going to the peripheries
Bishop Zinkula takes to heart the message of Pope Francis urging Catholics to go to the peripheries, to bring the light of Christ to others. “A periphery is a place on the edge of what we consider to be whole and healthy, a place on the margin of normative society,” Bishop Zinkula explains.
“One person’s periphery may concern the basic necessities of life. Another person’s periphery may relate to discrimination, prejudice, bias. A periphery may have to do with illness, disability, grief, sorrow, trauma, violence, war; an unplanned pregnancy, a terminal illness, an undocumented status; Matthew 25 stuff. Peripheries are hard, sad, lonely, painful, scary places to be.
“Ministering to people on the peripheries keeps me grounded, centered and in touch. It keeps my faith real and focused,” the bishop says. “It helps keep me humble and compassionate. It keeps me close to Christ.”