Bishop breaks bread with inmates

Barb Arland-Fye
Bishop Thomas Zinkula exchanges the sign of peace with inmates at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison on Dec. 19. The bishop celebrated a pre-Christmas Mass with Catholic inmates and joined them for a special meal afterwards.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

FORT MADISON — Three days before President Donald Trump signed the most significant criminal justice reform bill in a generation, Bishop Thomas Zinkula broke bread with Catholic inmates at the Iowa State Penitentiary.

The “First Step Act” is described as a first step in criminal justice reform, but it brought hope to some of the 10 inmates who attended Mass and a “banquet” with Bishop Zinkula on Dec. 19 in the prison’s chapel. Among other things, the bill, which applies to the federal prison system, eases racial disparities in sentencing, dismantles some of the excessive measures from the war on drugs and implements programs aimed at reducing recidivism (, Dec. 19).
Dewey, an inmate and the banquet’s proud planner, educated himself about the bill’s details and shared with Bishop Zinkula his hopes that

the federal law will encourage the state of Iowa to respond similarly. The bill focuses largely on inmates who have committed nonviolent crimes. One inmate was overheard saying that it wouldn’t help him; he’d probably be in prison for life.


But Mass and the banquet took center stage for the inmates, who worked hard to earn this privilege by staying out of trouble ahead of the celebration.

Celebrating faith

Just before Mass, in front of the candlelit altar of the bookshelf-lined chapel, Dewey makes a request. He asks his fellow inmates to help rearrange the tables and chairs after Mass for the Christmas banquet they will celebrate with Bishop Zinkula and the Holy Family Parish Prison Ministry team from Fort Madison. “We have a microwave for the asparagus and the rice,” Dewey says with gratitude.

This is Bishop Zinkula’s second annual Mass and banquet with inmates at the maximum security prison. “It’s good to be with you again,” he says after the opening song. “I came for the food,” he jokes.

Ten inmates and five members of the prison ministry team from Holy Family Parish participate in the Mass on this mild, December afternoon: Jean Gunn, Russell Savage, Carleen Mayer, Deacon Dave Sallen and Father Joseph Phung, the parish’s pastor. Priests from the Keokuk Deanery rotate the monthly celebration of Mass at the prison.

“We normally have about 20 (inmates),” says Deacon Sallen. “Some of them are in lock-up … some were transferred to Anamosa and Newton; a couple just got released. The ones who come are very faithful.” The deacon leads a Communion service once a month at the prison, and considers it a second home because of the rapport he’s established with the inmates and correctional officers.

Spiritual freedom

The inmates listen attentively to the bishop’s homily, which speaks to them as men who are not free in the physical sense but can embrace freedom in the spiritual sense. Bishop Zinkula quotes 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who once said the aim of his philosophy was “‘to show the fly the way out of the bottle.’ … We are like a fly in a bottle banging our heads against the glass over and over again,” the bishop says. “We bang our heads against the wall of a prison. We bang our heads against the walls of societal and cultural expectations. We bang our heads against the walls of an addiction. We bang our heads against the walls of sinful patterns and habits, all of us, including the bishop. The longer we bang our heads, the more hurt and bruised we become.”

But, “God sends his Son to show us the way out of the bottle…. Jesus became one of us to save us. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas … the beginning of our salvation.”

God also frees us physically, as when God sent an angel to open the doors of a prison in order to free the apostles so they could teach the people in the temple area, the bishop says. “But the best and most enduring freedom that God offers us in this life is spiritual freedom: The freedom to experience conversion, to approach life in a whole new way and to live our lives as committed disciples of Jesus Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit.”

Deacon Sallen says of the bishop’s homily: “He knows how to relate to the inmates; I think that has to do with his prior experience in prison ministry.”

Help yourself to food

After Mass, the inmates transform the chapel into a “banquet” hall, rearranging the chairs and tables and setting out the grocery store-purchased food: pork loin, asparagus, rice, cottage cheese, lime Jell-O, tortillas, tomatoes, cilantro, cheese crumbles, guacamole and special orders, such as steak. This is a rare treat, paid in part by Holy Family Parish and the inmates. Several tubs of ice cream keep cool on ice.
“I hope you came with an empty tank,” David, an inmate, tells Bishop Zinkula. Then David asks, “What does a bishop do?” “Sit around and twiddle your thumbs,” the bishop jokes. Turning serious, he responds, “The Bishop is the shepherd of a whole diocese. Bishops can’t be everywhere so they depend on their priests to assist them.” He lists his wide-ranging duties, which include administering the sacrament of confirmation and ordaining priests and deacons.

“Are there certain things you can do that priests are not allowed to do,” David asks. “Ordain priests and deacons,” the bishop responds. Dewey asks the bishop to lead the group in prayer before the meal.

An attitude of gratitude

Planning for this meal was a real treat for Dewey. “It means a lot to me to do it for all of these guys,” he says. “It’s a blessing.” His family always enjoyed planning big events for the holidays. How long has it been since he last participated in one of those family gatherings? “Seventeen years,” Dewey responds.

All of the inmates thank Bishop Zinkula for taking time to celebrate Mass and to eat with them afterwards. They want to have their pictures taken with him, and he obliges. “Thanks for coming to help us out,” an inmate named Josh says. “I’m glad (the bishop) thought enough of us to come down and spend time with us,” says an inmate named Manfred.

“I think the presence of the bishop here is the highpoint of the year of our ministry to our brother Catholics in prison,” Fr. Phung says. The bishop “brings them joy and lots of encouragement and to us as well.” The bishop is “an inspiration for the men,” Deacon Sallen says. “He’s our sign of the international church, locally.”

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