On Feb. 11, the prison ministry at Holy Family Church in Brentwood held their first annual retreat with inmates at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. There were roughly 20 people in attendance, including 12 inmates, three parish volunteers, Holy Family pastor Father Joe McMahon and Deacons James Booth and Mark White, Glenmary priest Father Wil Steinbacher and Holy Family staff members Betty Lou Burnett and Janis Lovecchio.
“It was a great day for all of us,” said Deacon Booth, director of the prison ministry program at Holy Family. “Everything went very smoothly, and all of us who were there are so grateful to the wardens and staff at Riverbend for helping us put this event together. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
The inmates, the staff at Riverbend, and the prison ministry volunteers worked together to help organize the retreat. “The prison ministry program at Holy Family has been around about four years now, and it was the first time we’ve ever had an event like this,” Deacon Booth said.
“At Riverbend, the Catholic inmates have a Mass the second Saturday of each month. But they really wanted a bigger opportunity for faith-sharing and fellowship beyond that monthly Mass, and to meet their fellow Catholics from the outside,” Deacon Booth said. “We got permission from the wardens, and were there on the 11th from about 10 in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon, when the inmates had to return to their cells to be counted.”
The day started with Mass celebrated by Fathers McMahon and Steinbacher, and included time for the Sacrament of Penance and eating lunch together. But the highlight of the day for everyone was an hours-long discussion of Pope Francis’ book “The Church of Mercy,” which is a collection of the Holy Father’s reflections on the Church acting as an instrument of God’s mercy to the world.
“After we got permission to host the retreat, about a month before the big day, we distributed copies of this book to the inmates, and the volunteers got copies as well,” Deacon Booth explained. “It’s all about the compassion and mercy that Jesus has for sinners, no matter what their walk of life. We wanted to give everyone time to prayerfully read this book and collect their thoughts on it. And then everyone shared their thoughts while we were there. It was a very powerful and rich time of fellowship we had together.”
“Pope Francis’ messages throughout the book hit home for me by helping me want to evangelize more,” said one of the Catholic prisoners.
Both inmates and volunteers walked away with a deeper faith, Deacon Booth said. “It really was a blessing for all of us,” he said.
“The prisoners got to meet people who were not there to judge them, and who saw them as human beings instead of just as a number. And I think it was transformative for the volunteers too. It really helped stretch their abilities to see the image of God in everyone they meet,” Deacon Booth said. “For those who had never visited a prison before, they had a revelation that these men are our brothers, just as much as those who sit next to them in the pews every week at Mass.”
He strongly encourages all who are interested in getting involved in prison ministry to consider it without fear or hesitation. “I think a lot of people who might consider doing prison ministry are turned off by the idea of it, because they think they’re being forced to go directly into the prison to meet convicted felons. And here at Holy Family, we do hope that those who join us will eventually feel comfortable enough to visit prisoners face to face,” he said.
“But I know, at least at our parish, there are many ways in which we provide outreach to prisoners that don’t involve prison visits,” he said. “At Christmas time, we have a clothing and toiletry drive to collect gifts for the men at Riverbend. We also send Christmas cards to them and have people who are pen pals with some of the inmates. Most of these men have been abandoned by their families, and it really means so much to them that someone on the outside is keeping them in their thoughts and prayers.
“So if you want to get involved, look into the opportunities that your parish provides and do what you feel most comfortable doing,” Deacon Booth said. “But please don’t hesitate to join in. It’s very life-changing for inmates and volunteers. I highly recommend it.”