My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Our diocese is blessed with seven Catholic high schools, seven Catholic hospitals, seven state prisons, and one federal prison. While most people would readily agree that it is a blessing to have seven Catholic high schools and seven Catholic hospitals, some may question how seven state prisons and one federal prison could be considered a blessing. I would answer that question by considering what Jesus had to say about the last judgment as described in the Gospel of St. Matthew, chapter 25, verses 31-40, where Our Lord said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
Our Lord’s instructions about the necessity of feeding the hungry, welcoming immigrants, clothing the needy, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison are called the corporal works of mercy, as distinguished from the spiritual works of mercy. The difference between the corporal works of mercy and the spiritual works of mercy is described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2447), as follows: “The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.”
Thus, Catholic education is a spiritual work of mercy as a way to provide instruction and lead people to the truth, while Catholic hospitals, food pantries, and social services are examples of putting the corporal works of mercy into practice. While prisons and jails are run by federal, state, and local authorities, the Church provides chaplains to provide for the pastoral care of those who are imprisoned. I am deeply grateful to the priests, deacons, and lay ecclesial ministers who carry out the prison ministry in our diocese, and I consider their work an essential part of the mission entrusted to us by our Lord, Jesus Christ.
In fact, it has been my practice to visit one of our prisons personally each year (except when the prisons were locked down due to COVID) either on Christmas morning or sometime during the days leading up to Christmas. This past Dec. 24, I celebrated Mass for prisoners at the Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mt. Sterling. In past years I have celebrated Mass at the Jacksonville Correctional Center, Taylorville Correctional Center, Vandalia Correctional Center, Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro, the Women’s Unit at the Decatur Correctional Center, and both the Men’s and Women’s Units at Greenville Federal Prison. It is my plan to visit Robinson Correctional Center later this year before Christmas. I must acknowledge that I learned this commendable practice from the fine example of my episcopal mentors in the Archdiocese of Chicago, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and the late Cardinal Francis George, each of whom in his time would celebrate Mass at Cook County Jail on Christmas morning.
My message to the prisoners was simple but profound: “Christmas reminds us that God, in Jesus, is present in our midst. I have come here among you on this day before Christmas as a sign and a reminder that Christ is in your midst, even here, in prison. God has not abandoned you.”
We are sometimes tempted to think or to imagine that Jesus has left us completely alone, that He no longer cares for us, but Holy Mother Church gently corrects this thought and reminds us that, “The Lord Jesus, the king of glory, the conqueror of sin and death, ascended to heaven while the angels sang his praises. Christ, the mediator between God and man, judge of the world and Lord of all, has passed beyond our sight, not to abandon us but to be our hope. Christ is the beginning, the head of the Church; where He has gone, we hope to follow” (Preface II for the Ascension). This, then, is the hope that belongs to Jesus’ call: to be with Him forever in His kingdom!
May God give us this grace. Amen.