Nine NC inmates receive sacraments during Mass in prison
'I was in prison and you came to me'
Editor's note: Names and details regarding past offenses have been withheld to respect the privacy of those being served in the Diocese of Charlotte's prison ministry.
SPRUCE PINE — Scripture instructs us to "Be mindful of prisoners as if sharing their imprisonment, and of the ill-treated as of yourselves, for you also are in the body." (Hebrews 13:3)
That is the driving truth behind the Diocese of Charlotte's prison ministry, in which laypeople and clergy regularly visit with prisoners of all kinds to preach the Good News and remind them that God loves them, no matter what they did in the past.
More than two dozen state prisons are scattered throughout the diocese, including two medium-security prisons for men in Spruce Pine: Avery Mitchell and Mountain View correctional institutions. It was to both prisons that Bishop Peter J. Jugis went July 9 to celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments to nine inmates: Five were baptized, six received first Holy Communion and all nine were confirmed.
It marked the first time Bishop Jugis traveled to one of the prisons to celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments, and it was a joyful occasion for everyone present.
Pictured: Bishop Peter J. Jugis administered the sacrament of confirmation to nine inmates during visits to two state prisons in Spruce Pine July 9. The diocesan prison ministry, which leads Residents Encounter Christ retreats and regular visits to the facilities, has been ministering to the nine men at Avery Mitchell and Mountain View correctional institutions for several years. (Photos provided by Donald Waugh)
'RESIDENTS ENCOUNTER CHRIST'
Four of the men Bishop Jugis came to minister to were Catholic, and the other five were converts from the Baptist, Lutheran and other Protestant denominations. Father Christopher Gober and Deacon Mike Leahy, spiritual leaders for the prison ministry, Deacon Carlos Medina of Charlotte and seminarian Paul McNulty, as well as many lay members of the prison ministry and the nearby parishes of St. Lucien, St. Bernadette, Sacred Heart and St. Elizabeth of the Hill Country also attended the two Masses July 9.
The Masses were a celebration of four years of service by the prison ministry, starting with visits and multiple retreats known as Residents Encounter Christ or RECs. At these retreats, inmates – addressed as "residents" – are never asked about their pasts, even though some do choose to discuss their crimes. Instead, they have someone to talk to them, to listen to them, to care about them – and for so many of the men, that is a rare experience, lay ministry members say.
The men are thankful for God's love and mercy, lay ministry leaders note, and through the various retreats, nine of them asked to seek full membership in the Church. With the cooperation of the prison chaplains in the two facilities, some very dedicated people brought weekly religious education to both prisons.
Some might consider the men welcomed into the Church July 9 as people who committed horrible crimes and deserve to be in prison. Certainly, they are spending years – even decades – in prison for their offenses, which in a medium-security prison could include murder, rape or drug trafficking.
But they remain children of God, and the prison ministry members strive to show them the mercy of Christ. God always loves them, no matter what.
Love, forgiveness, reconciliation: That's what these men were looking for from Christ and His Church.
For one young man who is serving a sentence of four to six years, participating in the Catholic ministry has helped him to develop a strong faith in God and the Church. The Holy Spirit has guided him, he said, and "I've had a spiritual transformation." He received first Holy Communion and was confirmed by Bishop Jugis on July 9.
Another resident, now in his mid-30s, was raised Catholic but ran afoul of the law many times as an adult and is now serving a sentence of more than 15 years. With the spiritual direction offered through the prison ministry, he said he has drawn closer to God and has "felt the grace to grow." He sees confirmation as the "ultimate seal, the gift of the Holy Spirit."
Another resident was baptized, received first Holy Communion and confirmation from Bishop Jugis July 9 in a grace-filled moment he continues to be thankful for. He has been in and out of prison for most of his adult life, with a criminal record dating back several decades. He found new life in Christ after deciding to go to one of the Residents Encounter Christ sessions, then regularly attending Mass as well as the religious education programs. The Holy Spirit inspired him, a former Baptist, to convert to Catholicism. When asked why he wanted to become Catholic, he simply replied, "I wanted to join the real Church."
RESIDENTS THANKFUL FOR BISHOP'S VISIT
Since the Masses on July 9, the prison ministry team has met again with the residents and asked them for their thoughts.
They said that they were excited, "it felt as if we were in heaven," the Mass was "dazzling" and, in general, they were awestruck by the sacraments.
Just having Bishop Jugis there was wonderful, they said. They had expected the bishop to lead a quick worship service and then leave, but, one resident commented, "It was great that we were able to have time to talk with the bishop." Bishop Jugis remained after the Mass and spoke with each one of the men, had pictures taken, and just treated them all as brothers in Christ. That meant a lot to these men.
The residents also appreciated the many men and women from the local parishes who came to the Masses at each prison to pray with them and witness them receiving the sacraments. And they said they were thankful for the prison ministry that puts on the REC retreats and supports the weekly religious education and monthly Masses at the two prisons.
They experienced the love of Our Lord through the many men who participated in these activities and the dedication of many who visited weekly and offer lessons in the Catechism. The ministry members' time, dedication and love through the power of God has touched the men's hearts and given them new lives in Christ.
Noted Father Gober, pastor of St. Lucien and St. Bernadette churches and chaplain for the REC retreats, "The sacraments of initiation they received from Bishop Jugis will be a source of strength and healing for them. Their entrance into the Catholic Church will also provide a spiritual home, greater direction and purpose in life, and the tools needed to cultivate a serious interior life."
— Mike Murray, correspondent
Learn more about the prison ministry and Residents Encounter Christ: Contact Don Waugh from St. Bernadette Parish at 828-284-2471 or Joe Noser from St. Lucien Parish at 828-766-7784.
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