Archbishop visits Bridgewater inmates

Since his installation, Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley has taken steps to introduce himself to the flock he shepherds in the Archdiocese of Boston by celebrating Mass at various parishes throughout the archdiocese. On Nov. 26, he reached out to other, sometimes forgotten, members of the Church when he visited inmates at the maximum security Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater.

Archbishop O’Malley greeted and shook hands with approximately 50 prisoners gathered for the Thanksgiving vigil Mass, a number of whom were dressed in their orange prison jumpsuits. Many inmates had invited guests — their wives, brothers, sisters, parents and children — to join in the celebration.

Bernadette Hills, whose nephew is an inmate, attended the Mass with her sisters Martha Spaulding and Joyce Chapman.

“Archbishop O’Malley’s visit brings a lot of comfort to the inmates, especially because their families are here to support them,” Hills said. The celebration of the Eucharist each week “gives some inmates something to look forward to,” Hills continued. “It’s a focus for them.”

She said that since her nephew began serving a 30-year sentence five years ago, he has grown closer to God. He attends Mass frequently and participated as an altar server in the Mass with the archbishop.

“It’s absolutely amazing that the archbishop is here,” said Spaulding, Hills’ sister.

Although prison guards standing nearby and barbed wire fences visible through the window of the auditorium served as constant reminders of their captivity, prisoners sang the Mass’ entrance song loudly and joyfully accompanied by a guitar and tambourine.

Father George Szal, SM, chaplain at the facility, began the Mass by welcoming the archbishop and giving a brief synopsis of Archbishop O’Malley’s pastoral positions before his appointment as Archbishop of Boston.

Father Szal went on to thank the nearly 120 volunteers who dedicate their time to prison ministry. He also acknowledged the family members of the inmates who often visit the prison.

“It’s the volunteers and the families who help us the most,” he said. “They help us to remember that we are not forgotten.”

Two inmates then proclaimed the Mass readings in English and in Spanish.

In his homily, Archbishop O’Malley touched upon his experience as a prison chaplain in Pennsylvania shortly after his ordination.

“It is always a very special joy to go back to the prisons,” he told those gathered. “I always find Christ in a very special way ... Christ is always here with us in moments of pain. He is always very close to us.”

The archbishop then spoke of the day’s Gospel reading in which Jesus cures 10 lepers, outcasts because of their disease. The Gospel, explained Archbishop O’Malley, stresses God’s mercy for the sick, the neglected and those on the lowest rungs of society.

Archbishop O’Malley stated that the difficulties and challenges in life are often what bring people to experience God’s love and mercy.

“We give thanks to God for the many blessings in our lives,” Archbishop O’Malley said. “We also give thanks for the blessings in disguise ... it’s those very things that draw us closer to God and help us realize what is important in life.”

After the Mass, the archbishop spent time with the inmates who attended Mass and visited those in solitary confinement and in the health ward at the prison. He then presided over a communion service for approximately 15 inmates at the minimum-security facility on the Old Colony Correctional Center complex.

Speaking after the Mass, Father Szal was encouraged by the archbishop’s visit. He also expressed his gratitude for the prison staff who, he said, “went out of their way to make this [visit] happen.”

“I thought that it was fantastic,” he said. “Everyone was impressed with the fact that the archbishop would come to us.”

Father Szal celebrates Mass at the prison four days a week. He also holds occasional prayer services for the inmates.

“The Catholic Church is very active here” in the prison, said Kevin, an inmate who attended the Mass. “Father [Szal] does a great job, especially with little perks like the archbishop’s visit.”

Deacon William Kane, director of the Office for Prison Ministry, facilitated the archbishop’s visit to the Bridgewater facility. Deacon Kane supervises prison ministry for the 27 prisons in the archdiocese.

Prison visits are important for inmates “because they are the forgotten poor,” he said. “They are isolated to a great degree from society.”

“The Church has to play an active role in reminding them that they are still part of the Church,” Deacon Kane continued. “We all belong to Jesus and the Church regardless of where we are.”