It was not lost on the men, as many responded with smiles and laughter. Their responses during the noon Mass were spirited and assured. A well-rehearsed choir led the men in voices that more than filled the small chapel.
Ash Wednesday is the day on the liturgical calendar that, perhaps more than any other, draws those who have drifted from faith back through the doors of the church – to acknowledge their sinfulness and reconnect with God.
To emphasize the point that all are equal both in their propensity for sin and their redemption in Christ, the Bishops and Episcopal Vicars of the Diocese choose to spend Ash Wednesday at prisons throughout the Diocese. In addition to Bishop Barnes’ visit to CIM, Auxiliary Bishop Rutilio del Riego celebrated Mass at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe while Father Romy Seleccion, E.V. San Bernardino, traveled to the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) in Norco and Father Rafael Partida, E.V. Riverside, visited Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe.
“You are our brothers and you are not forgotten,” Bishop Barnes told the men at CIM.
In the past decade the Diocesan Ministry of Restorative Justice has grown steadily under the leadership of director Sister Sue Reif, O.S.F., expanding to include outreach to victims of violent crime and their families and public policy advocacy on issues related to incarceration, re-entry and the death penalty. Still, more and more Catholics in the diocese are drawn to the ministry of visiting the incarcerated. About 216 people in the diocese are now involved in detention ministry.
A visit from Bishop Barnes or Bishop del Riego has special meaning for the prisoners, says Steve Gomez, Associate Director of the Diocesan Restorative Justice Office. Some who have fallen away from the Catholic faith of their upbringing are inspired to reconnect with it after a visit from one of the Bishops, Gomez added
“There’s something magical about a priest and then you multiply that by ten with a bishop,” Gomez said. “They feel more impacted by the presence of God. It’s more tangible.”
In addition to Ash Wednesday the Bishops and Episcopal Vicars visit prisons on the day before Thanksgiving, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Good Friday and Mother’s Day.
Bishop Barnes took a few minutes after the Ash Wednesday Mass at CIM to talk with the prisoners. Several asked what opportunities they might have to serve in Catholic ministry after they are released.
“You are welcome to ministries that fit your abilities and talents,” Bishop Barnes said in response before adding, “don’t wait until you get out to live your Christian discipleship.”