When people ask me how I spent Christmas, they are a bit startled when I reply, “I went to prison.”
It’s true. Early Christmas morning, my priest secretary Father Mike Wallack and I went to New Jersey State Prison in Trenton to celebrate Christmas Mass and visit with the Catholic residents there.
We were greeted at the entrance by Dominican Sister Elizabeth Gnam, Catholic Chaplain, and her fellow Dominican Sister Loretta Maggio of the Mount Carmel Guild. Sister Elizabeth kindly guided us through the authorization process. Sister Loretta brought a red poinsettia and evergreen branches to brighten up the chapel space for the 40 or so men who attended Mass. With great care, Sister Elizabeth placed an old wax figurine of Baby Jesus near the altar with lighted candles. She shared with me that she had found this in the basement of a school in New York where she taught as a younger Dominican and held on to it all these years. It may not seem like much to those of us used to the splendid Christmas decorations we see everywhere else but inside these drab prison walls, it was a beautiful reminder of the glorious birth of our Savior, surrounded by the poverty of a common stable.
The humble dedication and quiet service of these two religious women to the marginalized in society --- Sister Elizabeth at New Jersey State Prison for over 28 years --- is a powerful witness to the Gospel message of the One born on Christmas Day when he encouraged his followers later in life “when I was in prison, you visited Me (Matthew 25: 36).” If there ever was a “star” in this prison sky, it is they.
The inmates greeted Father Wallack and me with such warmth and joy as we vested for Mass. Most of the faces I recognized from my last Christmas visit here. One of the men rushed up to me saying “I’m a ‘hugger’” and embraced me whispering “thank you for coming” in my ear.
I was deeply moved seeing all these fellows in their identical tan prison uniforms but each with their own individual identities and unique stories to tell. Thy started singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” along with a CD playing and Mass began. After three of the men read the readings and Father Wallack proclaimed the familiar Christmas Gospel, I left the little stage area and stood in their midst. I had prepared a homily but put it aside to allow the Holy Spirit to give me more personal words to say. They listened with undivided attention.
Their faces --- white and black and brown --- filled my vision; their eyes, some of them glistening with tears, captured my own; their heads nodding in quiet, eager agreement. This was not the Bishop’s usual congregation but it was where I belonged, where I wanted to be at that moment, Christmas Day. They came to receive Holy Communion, with outstretched hands, longing for peace, comfort, mercy --- for the freedom from their own life’s circumstances that only the Babe of Bethlehem, the Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of Calvary could bring to a prison.
I must confess that it took me a bit longer to recite the concluding prayers that day, my voice filled with emotion. After Mass, I greeted each member of “my congregation,” extending Christmas wishes and blessings, shaking hands, embracing them, promising prayers for them and their loved ones. I had been there on other Christmases , as Bishop Smith had also been. But on this day, for some special reason, I sensed the presence of Jesus Christ and his mercy there among these men.
They would remain, some for a long, long time, and I would go home.
As the heavy door slammed shut behind my exit, I prayed that Jesus, our forgiving Lord and compassionate Savior, would stay with them until the next time I could respond to his inviting words, “when I was in prison, you visited Me.”