Bishop Alberto Rojas
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By Elena Macias

On the day before Thanksgiving, while many families prepared to host their loved ones for dinner, Bishop Alberto Rojas was in the chapel of the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC), a medium security state prison for men located in Norco. He was there to celebrate Thanksgiving Mass with nearly 100 incarcerated brothers.

On various occasions each year, the Bishop and other clergy leaders will visit detention centers in the Diocese. For this visit and Mass celebration, Eddie Garcia, Master of Ceremony, Deacon Daniel Ezekwe and Deacon Antonio Mejico, Diocesan Prison and Jail Ministry Coordinator, accompanied Bishop Rojas.

The CRC, at press time, houses 2,975 inmates and, due to the large population size, only a certain number can attend Mass in the chapel at a time due to safety reasons. In addition, several parts of the prison are locked down before and after a Mass celebration, so that all inmates and visitors remain safe.

“Every prison has a different feel to it,” Dcn. Mejico said. “As soon as you walk into the chapel in the prison, you can feel it, it feels different from the rest of the prison.”

Once inside the chapel, which resembles and includes everything that a typical chapel holds, the inmates prepared for Mass by deciding who will walk in the opening procession, who will proclaim the Mass readings, and other liturgical roles. When Mass began, the choir, which included piano and guitar players, filled the chapel with beautiful songs and hymns. According to Dcn. Mejico, many of the inmates only speak Spanish and because of this, Bishop Rojas celebrated a bilingual Mass.

During the second reading, from Corinthians 1: 3-9, something occurred that is not uncommon. The inmate proclaiming the Word became emotional, and had difficulty continuing. The reading states. “I give thanks to my God always… that in him you were enriched in every way… He will keep you firm to the end… and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
“Inmates always relate to [St. Paul] and it always makes them emotional to read those scriptures,” said Dcn. Mejico, who has over 30 years of experience in law enforcement. “Inmates encouraged the inmate who was emotional, instead of making fun or being negative.”

For his Homily, Bishop Rojas did not use notes or a prepared homily, and instead “spoke from the heart and let the Holy Spirit guide him,” Dcn. Mejico said.

Bishop Rojas spoke to the incarcerated men about the simple but powerful idea of giving thanks to God for our lives.

“Over the years I’ve served in this ministry, many inmates have told me they’re surprised they are still alive, as they consider the fragile nature of their lives on the streets,” Dcn. Mejico said. “As Bishop commented about their need to be thankful for their lives, many of the men seemed to lower their head and reflect on that thought. I truly believe they were listening.”

After the homily, Bishop Rojas continued with the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Dcn. Ezekwe, after Communion, placed the remaining hosts in the Tabernacle, which was then locked so that the Blessed Sacrament could remain there in the chapel. After Mass ended, Bishop Rojas and the deacons stayed to shake the hands of every inmate who attended Mass.

“That’s a huge thing for the inmates,” Dcn. Mejico said. “The Bishop’s touch, to be able to touch the Bishop.”

Despite being on a tight schedule, Bishop Rojas also made time to hear two confessions from inmates.

“A comment made by someone there was that the Bishop could have been anywhere in the Diocese; however, he chose to spend time with them,” Dcn. Mejico said. “They seemed to genuinely appreciate the Bishop’s presence.”

The Bishop’s visit to the Norco prison was coordinated by the Ministry of Restorative Justice within the Diocesan Department of Life, Dignity and Justice. Restorative Justice, which includes the Detention Ministry, Victims’ Ministry, Ministry to Families, and Ministry of Accompaniment with the formerly incarcerated, offers pastoral care and outreach to victims, the incarcerated, and the families of both. Restorative Justice Ministry also educates parishes on the realities of crime and its impact in society and responds with Gospel values. The ministry advocates for a transformation from the current retributive model of justice to a restorative justice model.

Elena Macias is the Managing Editor of the Inland Catholic BYTE.