I had the honor of addressing 50 Catholic prison chaplains on retreat at Notre Dame Retreat House in Canandaigua, N.Y., this week. And while my presentation was meant to give them a spiritual lift and maybe a little levity — I am totally goofy when I get up there in front of an audience. Go figure. — the truth is that they were the ones who did just that for me. The Spirit works in amazing ways, and there is no doubt in my mind that I was meant to be exactly in that place at that moment this week. And I need to thank them for welcoming me so graciously but also for teaching me and sharing with me and laughing with me and reminding me what is so wonderful and beautiful about the individual Catholics who make up the Body of Christ.
These priests, deacons, sisters, and lay men and women have a hard row to hoe. They are stretched to the limit. They take on darkness and struggle and suffering on behalf of others. And here in New York, Catholic prison chaplains are required to serve two masters, working for both the state government and the Church. If that doesn’t make your head hurt just thinking about it, I don’t know what will.
But hearing them talk about the people they serve and their faith communities that exist behind bars gave me hope, because what they are creating in prison is what I’m talking about creating out here in the great wide open, a place where faith is alive and where it doesn’t necessarily matter if you have a perfect liturgy as long as the Spirit is moving among the people. And I felt the Spirit moving among them right there.
I came home and told Dennis that I wish people who aren’t Catholic or who only know the Church by what they experience in their parish could see the humor and light and love that exists among Catholics who have spent many years toiling in the vineyard and who know that even in the darkest moments there are ways to stir up laughter. Our hospitality hour on Wednesday night is all anyone would have needed to see. I left that gathering lighter. The worries and chaos of the days before — something I shared with the chaplains during my talk about “Creating Calm Amid Life’s Chaos” — were lifted and I felt hope creeping back in.
Between Masses and meals and yoga class and ice cream and the birthday song for me at breakfast the next day, I couldn’t help but feel as though I belonged there, even though I didn’t, really. And I thought, THIS is what I’m talking about. THIS is what our parishes are missing, this sense of welcome even to the stranger, or the seeker, or the jaded veteran Catholic who still needs to feel God alive among the people. I found it there, and I feel renewed.