Wednesday, June 19, 2024

In First-Ever Pastoral Visit to the Incarcerated, Bishop Senior Brings Light of Christ to Men at SCI Coal Township

In First-Ever Pastoral Visit to the Incarcerated, Bishop Senior Brings Light of Christ to Men at SCI Coal TownshipTwelve days before Christmas, Bishop Timothy Senior brought the light of Christ to 50 men incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution in Coal Township, answering Jesus’ call of recognizing Him in those who are in prison.

The celebration of Mass followed by interaction with some of the men at the detention center, located in Northumberland County, marked Bishop Senior’s first such visit to a prison in the Diocese of Harrisburg, and the first time he’s ever celebrated a liturgy for inmates.

“I feel morally bound to outreach to members of our detention centers,” he told The Catholic Witness. “I told the men, ‘You are part of my flock. You’re part of the sheep in the Diocese of Harrisburg.’ As a bishop, I have a responsibility to reach out to them.”

The Witness was unable to receive permission from the prison to accompany the bishop during his December 13 visit, but interviewed him about the experience the following day for an upcoming Candid Catholic Convos podcast.

Recognizing the magnitude of the occasion, he spoke of the gravity of ministering to the incarcerated and the sense of our common humanity he experienced while there.

“It’s intimidating when you come to a prison and you realize what’s happening there, and why the men are there,” he said. “But when I started vesting for Mass and some of the men began to come in, I was overwhelmed with an awareness of the presence of God…. I realized all of a sudden and in a very powerful way our common humanity.”

“Each one of these men is loved beyond imagining by God. They made some very, very serious decisions, very poor choices and in many cases caused great harm. But there was suddenly an awareness of that common humanity,” Bishop Senior remarked.

In First-Ever Pastoral Visit to the Incarcerated, Bishop Senior Brings Light of Christ to Men at SCI Coal TownshipVisiting the imprisoned is one of the seven Corporal Works of Mercy, given to us by Jesus in Matthew 25:31-37. In this teaching, Jesus calls us to consider how we would treat others if they were Him in disguise. It’s a call Bishop Senior answered during his visit to SCI Coal Township, during which he was accompanied by Deacon Gregory Amarante, Diocesan Secretary for Catholic Life and Evangelization; Marianne Weltmer, Diocesan Director for Life and Dignity; and Sister Susan Born, IHM, chaplain at the correctional facility.

“You do look at [the prisoners] and wonder, what happened. How did they end up in this situation? What went wrong?” said Bishop Senior. He didn’t ask the men those questions directly, although some did offer to tell him about their sentences.

“I think that’s really what Jesus is asking us to do in that scene in Matthew 25, to recognize Him even in those who have really gone off the rails in terms of their choices and made bad and harmful decisions,” he said.

His visit was on the feast of St. Lucy, a martyr who wore a candle-lit wreath on her head to bring supplies to Christians hiding in the catacombs during the reign of Diocletian. St. Lucy is celebrated as a bearer of light in the darkness. On her feast day, the bishop reminded the men gathered for Mass that the light and mercy of Jesus is with them, dispersing the darkness of prison and sin.

The Gospel for the day was Matthew 11:28-30, in which Jesus says, ‘Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.’

“All of us, in one way or another, need to hear those words from Jesus,” Bishop Senior said, “but they took on a particular poignancy with this group; the burdens of dealing with the consequences of their own choices and the serious errors in their life, but also the sense of turning to the Lord in the midst of that loss and the grieving that happens, and finding rest in Jesus and the embrace of His love.”

In First-Ever Pastoral Visit to the Incarcerated, Bishop Senior Brings Light of Christ to Men at SCI Coal TownshipIn his homily, he told the congregation of men, both young and old, “We’re not created for sadness or isolation; we’re created for the Kingdom of God and God’s everlasting life and love. At Christmas, we’re conscious of the nearness of God and the light that comes into the world and banishes the darkness.”

“I encouraged the men to think about where the darkness is touching their heart as Christmas approaches and to bring that to the light of Jesus, to recognize that Jesus desires to fill our darkness with his light, His presence, His mercy. That enables us to then be light and to transform the world, whether that is the very closed experience of a detention center, or out in the world,” Bishop Senior said.

After the celebration of Mass, several men who were involved in the choir and as instrumentalists for the liturgy invited the bishop to play the piano and join in singing Christmas carols. The bishop said he was unexpectedly moved by the experience.

“I really couldn’t sing too well because I had a lump in my throat,” he said. “It was a very touching moment, lots of emotion. That’s the way God touches us. I came away from it feeling very humbled by the experience but also with a sense of our common humanity, and that God’s grace is there, working powerfully.”

He said he was moved by the prayerfulness and attentiveness the men displayed during the Mass; by their desire for healing, repentance and God’s mercy; and by their awareness of their own mortality.

“Yes, prison is a place for them to face what they’ve done and the harm they’ve done, but that doesn’t mean God ever gives up on them,” Bishop Senior said. “Jesus suffered and died for all of us, to overcome sin and death – and that includes some people that we may find it hard to believe that he would do that for.”

“I pray for them and I pray for their families. I also pray in a very special way for those whom they harmed. We always need to pray for healing for everyone,” the bishop said.

“None of us are defined by our sinfulness. None of us are defined by our bad choices. We’re defined by our relationship with God. No matter what, we are always sons and daughters of God. God is always seeking to repair that relationship and to heal even what we have done, because that’s what Jesus suffered and died for,” he said.

Bishop Senior plans to continue outreach to prisoners with future visits. There are 15 prisons within the Diocese of Harrisburg – 12 county prisons, two state prisons and one federal penitentiary. For information about prison ministry in the Diocese, visit Hear more of the bishop’s interview on the January 1 episode of Catholic Candid Convos.

(Public domain photos.)

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness

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