Bishop celebrates Mass at Newton Correctional Facility
By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
NEWTON — Bishop Thomas Zinkula spent part of his 61st birthday locked up.
“I came to celebrate my birthday with you,” he told 17 offenders who had gathered for Mass on April 19 in the small chapel at the Newton Correctional Facility.
One of them, Ed, recently wrote a letter to Bishop Zinkula after reading an article in The Catholic Messenger about the bishop’s December visit to the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, where he also celebrated Mass.
The Newton Correctional Facility includes a medium security facility that houses approximately 950 offenders. Ed wrote in his letter that life sometimes seems bleak “for those of us with sex offenses when we ponder what our lives will be like on the outside.” But Ed also marveled at the beauty of the Mass celebrated in the correctional facility.
“I pray that your future visit will show the world that the Church still cares for us,” Ed wrote. “I don’t expect this visit will change everyone’s opinion, but it will show the real-life example of Christ’s command to love one another. I hope to see you soon.”
Ed received his reply in person. “I wrote the letter,” he told the bishop as the two men shook hands at the correctional facility. Everyone wanted to shake hands, eager to make a connection. Bishop Zinkula shook their hands with enthusiasm. He is committed to going to the peripheries, geographical and metaphorical, to minister to others.
So, on his birthday, he visited peripheries that spanned the beginning of life to the twilight years. He blessed an ultrasound machine at Pathways pro-life resource center in Pella, received a blessing from retired diocesan priest Father Phil Ryan in Brooklyn, gave Communion to offenders in Newton and confirmed youths at St. Mary Parish in Davenport.
Other clergy go to the peripheries, too, including the priests and deacons who minister at Newton Correctional Facility. On an alternating basis, Fathers Bill Reynolds and Kevin Anstey and Deacons Joe Dvorak, Tom Hardie and Lowell Van Wyk of the Davenport Diocese and Father Michael Amadeo of the Des Moines Diocese ensure that the offenders are spiritually fed. Mass is offered twice a month on Thursdays and Communion services on the other Thursdays.
Bishop Zinkula emphasized at the beginning of Mass on April 19 that no one is immune from messing up. “We are sinners, all of us, and we need a Savior.” Prior to Mass, he went to another room to hear Ed’s confession. Vinny, an offender, later joked with Ed: “You do so much confession that you’re going to skip Purgatory!”
In his homily, the bishop emphasized the importance of finding balance between structure and spontaneity. “You guys didn’t follow through with the rules. That’s why you’re here…. But there’s a danger in being too focused on rules.” He gave examples from the Scriptures that day and from a previous encounter he had with a youth who asked on the spur of the moment to be baptized. “We need to leave room for the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives,” the bishop said. Pope Francis is doing that, in raising questions about issues such as divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion and whether women could be deacons. The bishop asked the men to consider where structure and spontaneity were lacking in their lives. “It’s all about balance. What does balance look like for you and me these days?”
During the Sign of Peace, the men moved from their places to shake hands with everyone in the room, including the bishop and three deacons who were present. Although such movement does not follow liturgical rules, the bishop appeared willing to yield to spontaneity.
The church offers hope
For Vinny, celebrating his Catholic faith in this chapel is “like a sanctuary inside of hell. … It’s safe. People here genuinely care about each other. There’s no judgment.” On the outside, “being a sex offender is the 21st century’s Scarlet Letter,” he said. “I don’t feel chastised and cast out within the church, as I do in society.” That’s not to deny the harm he has done. “I deserve to be here. I’m not the victim. The people I hurt are the victims.”
Ed joined the Catholic Church in 2016 while at the correctional facility and has inspired fellow offenders to return to the Catholic Church or to consider becoming members. Ed wants to become a Benedictine monk when he is released. His ultimate goal: sainthood. “I want to serve (God’s) church. If I become a better person, then the church is going to be a better church.”
“We focus on God’s word and getting closer to him,” David said, “and pray that our prayers will reach our loved ones on the outside. In here, we fight our own battles … our own demons.”
Andrew, a new convert, said he believes the Catholic Church gives him joy and hope. “The church has taught me that there is a future for me, not only in life, but (after) death.”
“It’s important for people to know that the body of Christ exists inside these walls,” said Deacon Hardie. “I’ve always known that God is everywhere,” Deacon Van Wyk shared. “Being with these guys is affirmation of that.”
“Thank you for your ministries, guys,” the bishop said to the deacons as he left the Newton Correctional Facility. “The Church of Davenport appreciates that.”