What a joyous time of the year. It is the final week of Advent and just four days away from the celebration of Christ's most holy birth. How fortunate we are to find ourselves surrounded by our brothers and sisters, loved ones and cherished friends, anticipating His coming.
In this time of joy, then, I would like to turn to a special group of our brothers and sisters, a group which does not always receive the inclusion and support that it should: those who find themselves imprisoned in correctional facilities within our diocese.
Yesterday morning, I had the privilege of celebrating Mass with residents of the Rappahannock Regional Jail near Fredericksburg. I witnessed in these men and women a deep thirst for God and hope that we all feel in our hearts.
The Lord teaches us through St. Luke's gospel that visiting the imprisoned is indeed a healing ministry: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord." (Lk 4:18-19).
We know as Catholics that visiting our brothers and sisters in prison is what the Lord would do, for He loved the most vulnerable among us and we are encouraged to do the same. Many of our brothers and sisters in prison have never felt love, or have been rejected by their own family and friends, and need someone to pray for them, to stand beside them. Like St. Luke, St. Matthew also teaches us the importance of forming relationships with those who are imprisoned. He records the words of Jesus, "I was in prison and you came to me" (25:36). This sentence is brief, with such concise words — yet what a profound meaning it carries.
Those in prison are often the first to be marginalized from mainstream society. We cannot let this happen. The Lord teaches us to love the vulnerable and appreciate the dignity of each human person precisely because they are made in the image of likeness of God Himself, even as we are. They are a part of our family; they are our brothers and sisters. They are men, women and youth from our communities, our families, our churches and schools.
In the United States, there are approximately 2.3 million people currently serving sentences in a correctional facility, and they need us. There are nearly 30 prisons or correctional facilities located within and around the boundaries of our own diocese. The importance and recognition of this population has not been forgotten. Through Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, we have a specific office for Prison Ministry, directed by Sister Connie Parcasio, S.N.D.S. This vital ministry is indeed a calling. To minister to the imprisoned is to follow directly in the footsteps of our Lord. I ask the faithful of our diocese — are we aware of the tremendous needs our brothers and sisters face? Are we willing to help and love them as Christ loves us?
Members of our diocese have volunteered with Sister Connie and Catholic Charities, and have visited those in prison and ministered in various ways: visiting with them one-on-one, tutoring, sharing God's word through Bible studies, and preparing them for Masses and confessions. Some volunteers minister to those on death row, and help others seeking reentry into daily society. Often when prisoners are released, there are few transitional mentorships or relationships for them to rely upon. This is where the Church can be of great help — to be a friend to someone adjusting to daily life, both in prison and after. In our diocese, we are blessed to have many opportunities to minister to these brothers and sisters while they are incarcerated as well as when they are released. Prison Ministry likewise ministers to the victims of crime as they seek healing from their loss, to families and children of both victims and offenders.
The Prison Ministry volunteers at Catholic Charities come from varied backgrounds and different age groups and all are invited to participate: for example, retired professionals, retired military personnel, working parents, college students, grandparents, and others who feel the call to serve.
Students in our diocese play a large role in prison ministry. Last year, Sister Connie created opportunities for students in Catholic schools to write personalized Christmas cards to residents at local facilities. Many students at the University of Mary Washington and Christendom College visit and minister to those in juvenile facilities near their schools. These opportunities are not only a benefit to those in prison, but are also important to the staff at the facilities, the families and friends of the imprisoned, and also to the victims and their families.
I invite each of you, then, in the spirit of celebrating the birth of the Christ Child, Who loves each person for his or her intrinsic dignity, to pray for our brothers and sisters in prison. Pray a novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help or gather members of our parish together for prayer services and vigils. If you feel the call to prison ministry, I encourage you to seek opportunities through your parish and Catholic Charities. Simply writing a card to a prisoner may give them more hope and ignite their faith. I saw yesterday how important forming relationships can be in the hearts of the imprisoned; to see their eyes fill with joy because others came to visit them. During this time of giving and peace, let us remember all our brothers and sisters in Christ. May God grant you and your loved ones a blessed Christmas.