Holy Week behind bars - Prison chaplains adapt and improvise at Easter

News: Priesthood

At the Dayton Correctional Institution in Dayton, Ohio, Easter Sunday will actually arrive on Easter Monday. That’s when Fr. Ambrose Dobrozsi will arrive to celebrate Easter Masses for women incarcerated into two of the prison’s four cell blocks. For Catholic women in the prison’s other cell blocks, Easter Sunday will come a week later, when Fr. Dobrozsi will offer two more Easter Masses.

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Certain elements of prison life are consistent, nearly predictable. But prisons run on their own time, and according to their own schedules, and by their own rules. Which means that even when Easter Sunday comes, prisoners and their chaplains are bound to follow strict size and time limitations on gatherings. During the pandemic, those rules have become even more difficult. And during the Triduum, the most sacred days of the Church’s calendar, those rules still apply.

In fact last year, many prisons locked down altogether when pandemic restrictions began. At Dayton Correctional Institution, the bureaucracy of pandemic restrictions meant that inmates went six months without access to the Mass or confession.

Eventually, things opened up a bit. But restrictions still in place limit how often a priest can visit the prison’s cell blocks, and how much time he can spend in prison.

In prison ministry, priests do what they can to find a way, Dobrozsi told The Pillar. The priest will receive three people into the Church this year, baptizing and confirming during the Easter Masses he celebrates. 

During Holy Week, a layperson who works for the archdiocese will visit the prison to lead Stations of the Cross and other Triduum devotions.

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Dobrozsi told The Pillar that ministry in prison, no matter the liturgical season, presents unique challenges, and particular rewards.

“There's a couple things that make it different from other parish ministry, both in incredibly rewarding ways, but also in challenging ways.”

“The things which these women face are incredible. Prison is a much more apparently hostile environment to the faith. Both because of the culture among the inmates and the attitude of the corrections officers. And, also the bureaucracy just does not care and does not want the faith there. There is extremely rampant drug use, and there is a lot of very disturbing sexual interaction among inmates,” the priest said, noting for the record that his observations about prison life come from outside the sacrament of penance.

“There are some guards, actually, who are profoundly nice people, but then you see that some of their interactions [with inmates] just give you a sick feeling in your stomach. So there's a solid mix of everything there.” 

“The power dynamic of course, is something that you have to recognize just makes all of those interactions, very, very touchy, to say in the most generous way.” 

Dayton Correctional Institution has been noted for an uptick in violence in recent years.

“But then you get to work with the women, and it’s incredible,” the priest said.

Under trying circumstances, the priest said, “you get to see very directly and evidently the working of God's grace in people’s lives. It's amazing, in part because you can so clearly see the work of Satan fighting against it.

“Incredibly evident in this environment is that the evil works of the evil one, and even our own sin, only provide a testament to the power of God's mercy to overcome them.”

In the prison where he ministers, Dobrozsi said he sees “heavy pagan and occult practices.” When inmates involved in those practices encounter Christ “you see incredible weights come off of people.”

Many inmates, including some who are baptized Catholics, are “starting at less than zero in terms of knowledge of the faith...And so just the joy of the Gospel becomes so evident” among those who are catechized or began to practice the faith while in prison, he said.

Inmates discover joy “in the life of Christ, and in the sacraments, and the teachings of the Church,” Dobrozsi said.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, the priest added, is often especially important for incarcerated women. 

“The majority of women are mothers in one way or another, and a number are post-abortive as well. And the Blessed Mother can do so much in that situation. We talk very consciously and intentionally about Our Lady of Sorrows quite a bit.”

“The rosary is a heck of an anchor,” the priest added.

Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, Australia, visits inmates in his archdiocese as often as his schedule allows, he told The Pillar, at least every few months. Before he was a bishop, the archbishop said, he spent much more time in prison ministry.

Comensoli agreed that the rosary is an especially important sacramental for inmates. 

Prisoners he visits often have children they rarely get to see, and have had difficult relationships with their partners and with their own mothers. But “motherhood — the sense of belonging to someone” is important for all people, including the inmates he visits. 

In that context, he said, “Mary is so really deeply important at the level of grace — which you can’t easily identify, but it’s there, deep down.”

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Comensoli will celebrate Easter Sunday Mass at a Melbourne prison on Divine Mercy Sunday, the first day after Easter he is available.

“We’ll have kind of a mini Easter Sunday. As is always the case in prison ministry, you adapt. If it’s roughly near Christmas, you do Christmas. If it’s roughly near Easter, you do Easter.”

Comensoli told The Pillar he’s not yet sure what he’ll preach about when he celebrates Easter Mass in prison. He said it’s important in prison ministry to be open to the Holy Spirit, and “also open in your style of ministry.” 

“Jesus went to different people. So the way in which he approached some groups of people was different from the way he approached other groups of people, and that needs to be true of a minister to prisons,” the bishop said.

The archbishop recalled conferring the sacraments of baptism and confirmation in prison, and said the most memorable of those experiences have been “when there’s some significant conversion experience where...the circumstances of life bring them an examination of their lives, and then to faith.”

Prisons, he said, are “tough places,” where grooming, violence, and coercion are not uncommon. But prison can be a place of conversion, he said and chaplains can be ministers of grace for inmates. That experience can be especially manifest in the celebration of Easter, he said.

While head of Australia’s second largest archdiocese, Comensoli continues to prioritize prison ministry because, he said, “prisoners need to know they’ve got a bishop.”

But, more directly, he said, visiting prisoners should be “bread and butter ministry for any ordained minister.”

“I keep coming back to the image of Matthew 25. What is it to be someone who lives such that the kingdom of God might be present to them? Visiting the sick, and the lonely, and the mourning, and the isolated, and the prisoner. That's the stuff of the Christian. That's the stuff of the Kingdom of God.”

“So I hope I can encourage it. To the extent to which our priests can do it, that sort of ministry is really crucial. It's good stuff,” Comensoli added.

Especially on Easter Sunday. Even when it comes on a Monday.