SALEM, Ore. (CNS) — Portland Archbishop Alexander K. Sample told 55 inmates at the walled maximum security prison in Salem that they “are loved.”
“You have nothing to fear because God loves all of us,” the archbishop told the inmates, clad in prison blues and wearing picture-ID cards, at Oregon State Penitentiary out State Street from the state Capitol.
“You guys are great,” the boyish-looking archbishop told the men the night of March 4. “Just about every congregation on the outside should be ashamed by your enthusiastic responses and singing.”
The inmates seemed deeply impressed by his comments about their Mass attendance and uttered a thank-you in response.
Archbishop Sample is nearing completion of his first 12 months as spiritual leader of western Oregon Catholics, and this was his first time visiting these men. On Jan. 17, he celebrated an evening Mass at the minimum security prison south of Salem.
His enthusiasm at celebrating Mass on the eve of the beginning of Lent with these inmates was infectious and reverberated among them.
“I spent 64 years on the outside,” said Carl Sundberg, a former teacher and Eugene-area public radio station manager, “and never received Communion from a bishop. It was worth the wait.”
Sundberg’s response echoed among the other men in the prison’s Catholic congregation: young and old, short and tall, bearded and clean shaven, pony-tail wearing, shaved heads, enormous mustaches, dreadlocks, and white, black and brown faces.
After the hourlong Mass, they lined up to have their rosaries blessed, receive the archbishop’s personal blessing, have their sins forgiven and pose for photos with the 6-foot-2-inch archbishop that they can send to their mothers.
The 53-year old archbishop, among the youngest in the church, had to go through a stiff, airportlike security screening and metal detector X-ray before being escorted to the chapel on one of the top floors of the prison.
The prison houses 2,200 inmates, half of whom are white, 30 percent Latino and the remainder African-American and Asian. Thirty-four men are on death row and dozens of other hard-core cases are confined to special housing, restricted one-person cells; most cells house two men. The previous execution occurred in 1996.
Inmate Hal Elkins, who turns 61 in June, acted as prison sacristan, preparing the altar and handing out missals. In fact, someone at the prison printed special Mass booklets that contained the readings and the songs. Elkins was convicted in 1972 of murder. He is scheduled to be released in October 2019.
Superintendent Jeff Premo stopped by before the Mass got underway to check things out. At 6:05 p.m., inmates began filing into the overheated chapel after a dinner of hamburgers and fries.
The archbishop greeted each of them with a warm smile and handshake. “Hi, there. How you doing?” he asked.
While preparations were being made by a dozen volunteers for the special liturgy, it was not lost on some that thousands of Mardi Gras revelers in New Orleans and elsewhere were in the medium stages of drinking themselves into stupors on the eve of Ash Wednesday, which begins the Lenten season.
In his homily, the archbishop said he was “sincerely happy to be with you tonight.
“I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be than to be with you guys on the eve of Lent.”
He repeated over and over that God has great love and great heart for guys who find themselves in this situation.
He talked about his early involvement in prison ministry as a young priest in Marquette, in the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula bordering Lake Superior.
He described himself as a young, blond-haired, privileged young man and wondered what he could offer the inmates.
All he could offer, he concluded, was to give the men “the great love of Jesus,” which that night he was bringing inside “OSP,” as the prison is called. “This is the best treasure one can have,” the archbishop told the men.
“Your archbishop comes to you tonight to tell you that the love and mercy of God through Jesus is available to all of you tonight in this room. God is here, in your midst, loving you and extending his mercy to you,” the archbishop said.
He said he, too, needs healing and “God comes to us where we are, even in a place like this.”
“Not one of you is unworthy of that love. God’s love for us is pure grace.”
Pfohman is editor of the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Portland Archdiocese.