Tag Archives: corporal works of mercy

…I was in prison and you came to Me…

Mike Holland walked into a prison classroom, not knowing what to expect.

Eight inmates were in the room. When they saw Holland enter, one of them stood up and told him, “We prayed that you would come.”

“I was like, ‘What? Holy smokes. OBviously, God must want me to come here,’” said Holland, 75, a memBer of Legatus’ New Orleans Northshore Chapter.

More than 14 years since that January 2005 initial encounter with prison ministry, Holland, a retired Businessman, continues to visit the RayBurn Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison in Angie, Louisiana, every other Wednesday.

“Something God wanted me to do”

“I just really feel this is something God wanted me to do, and he used a Protestant man who knew me to bring me into this role,” Holland said.

Holland and about four other parishioners from Mary Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Mandeville drive 50 miles every other week to the prison, which houses 1,200 felons serving sentences ranging from five to 30 years.

Holland and his fellow parishioners bring around 60 consecrated hosts, and lead a communion service. Holland delivers a reflection and distributes the Eucharist with the other volunteers. A six-piece band leads about 110 inmates in worship.

“It’s a full-blown service,” Holland said.

Visiting the imprisoned is one of several corporal works of mercy. Jesus — who Himself spent a harrowing night imprisoned after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane — had enlightened his disciples on the works of mercy, and said they who visit the imprisoned visit Him (Matthew 25:36).

Every week across the United States, hundreds of Catholic prison ministry staff and volunteers visit the more than 2 million people who are incarcerated in the federal and state prisons, and county jails.

Drawing convicts to Christ

Prison ministry can be tough work, for which it is often difficult to recruit people, faithful Catholics included, willing to go behind prison walls and interact with pretrial detainees and inmates, some of whom have committed violent crimes and are serving life sentences.

“These are not school boys who were picked up by the truant officer. They are convicted felons, but these are guys who are truly sorry for what they did and are seeking redemption,” Holland said.

Over the years, Holland’s prison ministry has helped bring many convicted felons to give their lives to Christ. Some have even entered the Catholic Church, receiving Baptism, Confirmation and their first Communion.

“It’s just been a very successful situation,” Holland said.

But before January 2005, Holland had never envisioned himself in prison ministry. A friend, a Protestant who was involved in prison ministry at the Rayburn Correctional Facility, had told Holland that the inmates there needed a Catholic presence.

“I was just incredulous,” Holland said. “No member of my family had ever been arrested that I was aware of. I never envisioned any of this.”

After thinking it over, Holland said he agreed to accompany his friend to the prison a couple of weeks later. After meeting the initial group of inmates and being told he was the answer to their prayers, Holland started making the drive to Angie every other week. He has not stopped since.

“This has been the most wonderful thing that could have happened to me,” he said.

Necessary trust factor

But trust had to be built.

Trust is a critical factor for a successful prison ministry. Many inmates who are serving prison sentences come from disadvantaged backgrounds and had a tough time growing up. Even if they yearn for God’s presence and His love, they still erect defense mechanisms that prison ministers have to penetrate.

“Most of these men have never had any men in their lives who ever showed them respect and love,” Holland said.

Early on in his ministry, an inmate told Holland, “Mr. Mike, I don’t give you more than a couple of months.”

When Holland continued going to the prison for six months, the inmate told him he was starting to earn his confidence. After a full year, the inmate said, “You know, Mr. Mike, you’re okay. I think you’re gonna last here.”

“I said, ‘Well, I think I will, too,’” Holland said.

Authentic love and respect

Showing authentic love and respect to people, even convicted felons, over time goes a long way. Even a simple gesture like greeting a classroom of inmates as “gentlemen” can carve enough space for grace to enter.

“I walked into the classroom a couple of months after I started, and this one guy said, ‘Nobody has ever called me a gentleman before,’” Holland said.

“I said, ‘Well, you’re gonna hear it from me now,’” Holland added. “I told them, ‘I’m here as a help to you, to bring Christ to you, and I told them, ‘I’m going to treat you with respect and I expect you to treat me with respect.’”

Respect has been a two-way street between Holland and the inmates. Last year, Holland was away for a couple of months while recovering from a heart operation. When he returned to the prison and entered the chapel, the inmates gave him a standing ovation.

“It brought me to tears,” Holland said. “These guys are all God’s children. They just needed someone to show them some caring. I’d say most of these guys, their families have disowned them. They’re outcasts, and they’re seeking someone to show them love and respect.”

Meeting Christ where they are

Holland was also involved in a committee that worked for three years to raise more than $550,000 to build a 7,100-squarefoot interfaith chapel on the prison grounds. The chapel opened in 2010, and hosts the Catholic Communion services.

The services include the following: Sunday Mass readings, a homily, the distribution of Communion and music. Most of the inmates who attend are Catholic, though the service also attracts Protestants and non-Christians.

After the service, the inmates may gather for a Bible study, to watch a religious film and socialize. The inmates recently were watching a film about St. Peter.

While the prison ministry is carried out by Mary Queen of Peace Church, the inmates decided to name their congregation after St. Peter. In the last year, three men entered the Catholic Church through the St. Peter Catholic Community at Rayburn Correctional Facility.

“We’re very proud of that,” Holland said.

Rapid growth – like Peter and early Church

On weeks that Holland and his team do not visit, a local deacon and priest visit the facility to celebrate Mass and distribute the Eucharist. Three archbishops from New Orleans have also visited the prison over the years to celebrate Mass for the inmates.

With plenty of free time on their hands, the inmate members of St. Peter Catholic Community pray for each other, their chaplains, and the ministry volunteers. Through praying and worshiping together, and showing each other mutual respect, the St. Peter Catholic Community has grown from eight men in a classroom to 110 inmates in a chapel. The congregation seems poised to continue to grow.

“They just wanted someone to show them love and respect,” Holland said. “When you do that, you get it back a hundredfold.”

BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.

Living the Corporal Works of Mercy

Most of my readers will be familiar with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. I will focus on the former: those that tend to the bodily needs of others.

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Monsignor Charles Kosanke

Most of the list comes from Matt 25:31-46. The corporal works are: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. (The final one comes from the Book of Tobit.)

As Christ’s disciples, the gospel is a normative starting point. What does Christ’s final discourse in Matthew teach us? First, the corporal works of mercy will be the criteria for the Last Judgment. Second, there will be a separation into two groups of people: those who do them, and those who do not. Third, both groups will be surprised that the response or lack of response to the needs of the poor is equated with Jesus: “What you did or did not do, you did to Me.” Fourth, there will be a consequence: “These will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” The teaching clearly links the corporal works of mercy to one’s salvation; therefore, this not optional, but requires our attention and action.

Many of the corporal works of mercy are not necessarily unique to Christians. A humanitarian can do them. This person doesn’t do them as a believer; rather he recognizes that a good person helps people in need. Also, in our post-Christian culture, there are many unchurched Christians who participate in acts of mercy but who sadly don’t value the connection between this service and growing in their relationship with God.

A disciple of Jesus may “look” like a humanitarian, but there is an important difference. A disciple doesn’t do corporal acts of mercy merely out of social concern, self-satisfaction, or to be noticed. He does them because of his relationship with Jesus Christ and the commitment to following his teaching. What does this concretely mean for us? It means that it’s an integral part of a Christian lifestyle. A faithful Catholic isn’t limited to the occasional sharing of surplus from her food pantry or closet. It’s not just the occasional visiting a family member or friend in the hospital or prison. It is participating in or supporting a vital ministry.

Where are the corporal works of mercy found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church? They’re found in the section that explains the seventh commandment: “You shall not steal!” Why? We may think this commandment only refers to taking things that don’t belong to us. However, the Church teaches that the broader understanding of this commandment is justice and charity.

“Christian life strives to order this world’s goods to God and to fraternal charity” (#2401). This commandment includes the Church’s social doctrine, which relates directly to Legatus members: “Those responsible for business enterprises are responsible to society for the economic and ecological effects of their operations. They have an obligation to consider the good of persons and not only the increase of profits. Profits are necessary, however. They make possible the investments that ensure the future of a business and they guarantee employment” (#2432).

The second important aspect of the corporal works of mercy is that “whenever you did for one of these least [brothers and sisters] of mine, you did for Me” (Mt 25:41) or the contrary (Mt 25:45). To believe this takes an act of faith. To see Jesus in the poor is not a pious statement but an act of contemplation. Our spiritual life opens our eyes to see the suffering Jesus in the poor. Many saints understood and experienced this truth. My favorites are St. Francis of Assisi and St. Vincent de Paul. One of the best teachers of his truth is Blessed Frederick Ozanam, founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

Recent popes have continued to develop the Church’s understanding of the corporal works of mercy. Pope St. John Paul II’s Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy) makes the connection between receiving God’s mercy and showing mercy to others, especially the poor. Pope Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est links the love of God with the practice of love by the Church.

Pope Francis has made the importance of the corporal works of mercy a central part of his papacy. He makes clear the importance of living the Word of God in our daily life, especially with regard to creation — humanity and the care of the earth.

MONSIGNOR CHARLES KOSANKE is pastor of St. Regis Church, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., chairman of Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, spiritual advisor to the Detroit Archdiocesan Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and chaplain of Legatus’ Detroit Chapter.

Separating the sheep from the goats

There’s an old adage: If you’re not moving forward, you’re going backwards. This is certainly true in business, but it’s also true in other aspects of our lives.

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Patrick Novecosky

Business people know this saying all too well. Growth is essential to the bottom line. Legatus itself strives to grow in order to bring the Gospel to as many souls as possible — but also because if our growth were stagnant, we’d still lose members through death, illness, and dozens of other reasons.

Similarly, we strive to grow in our relationships. My wife is my best friend. We’ve known each other for 15 years, but we’re still getting to know each other — and growing in our understanding and appreciation for each other. My children are complex beings whom I strive to know better as they age and mature.

Why should our relationship with Jesus — God himself who is infinite — be any different? At Mass a couple of days ago I heard Matthew’s gospel in a completely new way. Jesus was talking about his return in glory when he separates the sheep from the goats (Mt 25:31-46). The sheep will go to heaven and the goats to hell.

Jesus doesn’t have it in for the goats. The goats willingly chose hell because they opted not to listen to the Master’s voice — they chose themselves before others. Surprisingly, they were shocked when Jesus said he didn’t know them.

The sheep were also puzzled when Jesus assures them they had, indeed, done his will: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?” Jesus replied: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

That got me thinking: Am I a goat? Am I going the extra mile to care for the sick and imprisoned, the thirsty and hungry? After Mass, I returned to work and started editing the Faith Matters column. Bam! It was like being hit across the head with a 2×4 — a rough awakening to know that my eternal salvation hangs on making this gospel passage part of my life.

It’s clear that my primary focus is to provide for the physical and spiritual needs of my wife and children. That’s first. But God is also calling me — and all of us — in this Year of Mercy to ask: “What more can I do? How can I serve Jesus in the poor and needy?” And grow we must. Our eternal destiny depends on it!

PATRICK NOVECOSKY is Legatus magazine’s editor-in-chief.