By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
MOUNT PLEASANT — Five minutes before the regularly scheduled Mass at Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility, a voice announces over the public address system, “Catholic Mass, Library, 6 o’clock.”
An announcement on the bulletin board outside the library that doubles as a chapel advertises the Sept. 19 Mass with Bishop Thomas Zinkula. But the correct time has been blotted out; 7 p.m. is listed above it.
Just one offender has entered the library/chapel. The bishop doesn’t seem worried as he visits with James, who converted to Catholicism while in prison in Kansas. James tells the bishop about the struggles that have led him in and out of prison. “Some things we can’t do on our own,” the bishop says with compassion. “We need God; God and a good faith community can help you make good decisions.”
Several other offenders arrive after the announcement over the PA. “Welcome,” the bishop says, shaking each one’s hand. Also greeting the offenders are most of the members of the prison ministry team from St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant: Father Paul Connolly, the pastor; Ted Mountz and Mike Burgmeier.
Fr. Connolly celebrates Mass the third Thursday of the month. Communion services are offered the other Thursdays in this minimum security facility with about 860 offenders and a staff of around 260 employees.
Taylor, a 29-year-old offender, asks how long the bishop has been serving the church. The bishop says he was ordained a priest 29 years ago. “Amazing,” Taylor responds. The bishop quips, “I’ve been a priest as long as you have been alive.” “A lifetime of service,” Taylor says.
More offenders arrive as Mass begins. Mountz announces the opening song and page number. The men open their hymn books and sing “All Are Welcome Here.”
“That wasn’t too bad. You guys can sing!” the bishop says afterwards. “I’m here because one of the corporal works of mercy is to visit those in prison. There are four correctional facilities in the Diocese of Davenport. I visit each one once a year. It’s good to be with you to share the joy of the Gospel….”
Mountz, who entered prison ministry 10 years ago, assigns the first and second readings and responsorial psalm to three different offenders. He offers encouragement as needed and announces page numbers for the prayers and songs.
Fr. Paul Connolly proclaims the Gospel for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Times, the story of the dishonest steward who acted prudently (Luke 16: 1-13).
Bishop Zinkula’s homily begins with a story about a rabbi’s gift that gave hope to his old friend the abbot and new life to the monastery the abbot led. The rabbi’s gift was a piece of advice for the abbot to share with his fellow monks: “The Messiah is among you.” The monastery’s inhabitants took that message to heart. They saw Christ in one another and it made all the difference in the world.
The bishop carries that message into his reflection on the responsorial psalm (113) and its refrain: “Praise the Lord who lifts up the poor.” “Spiritual writers tell us that we are either growing or backsliding … we are never neutral. “We give glory and praise to God,” the bishop says, when giving attention to someone else.
He asks the men to think about how they treat one another and get along with one another. “The challenge for any Christian community is to live out the values of the Gospel by receiving one another as Christ, like the monks in the story I told, as we journey together toward God.”
That is a challenge for any Christian community, “and you guys here, you have a community here. Live out the values of the Gospel by looking out for one another, as Christ,” the bishop encourages them.
After Mass, Bishop Zinkula blesses the rosary of Andrew, a 31-year-old offender who anticipates being released from the facility this week. Participating in the Mass with the bishop “was awesome,” Andrew says. “This is something I needed just before going home.”
Andrew summarizes what he took away from the bishop’s message. “If we’re not progressing, we’re falling behind. If I’m not continually praising God, I’ll be falling backwards.”
The bishop’s homily also resonated with Joseph, a 37-year-old offender who grew up Catholic but hadn’t been to Mass in a long time. “We have to be very careful about what we think and when we speak,” Joseph says. “I’m so glad (the bishop) took the time to see us. I’m thankful and grateful.”
About the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility:
Established in 1976 as a temporary unit to hold 144 offenders, the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility was reclassified in 2016 as a minimum secured facility with a focus on preparing offenders for re-entry to the community. Substance abuse and cognitive/batterers education are part of the core programming.
Eligible offenders tend the facility’s 152 acres with supervision of maintenance staff. Gardens produce food that helps feed the offenders at a cost savings to the state. Eligible offenders also have opportunities to work with the local law enforcement agency, Habitat for Humanity and road side clean-up. They wash and wax cars with proceeds going to the facility’s hospice program.
Offenders also can participate in educational programs and apprenticeship programs with job skills training in fields such as welding, cabinetry and painting, among other crafts.
(Source: Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility website.)