The Sacrifice of the Mass Part 1
by Fr. Gordon J. MacRae on November 4, 2009
After fifteen years in prison, two remarkable things happened to me in just the last three months. The first was the launch of These Stone Walls in late July. The second, and most remarkable, is the ability to celebrate Mass weekly in my cell. The latter is a story worth telling.
For my first five years in prison, I was confined in a cell with seven other men. There was room for nothing else in the cell but steel bunks and yellow plastic bins containing the sum total of each prisoner’s possessions: clothing, books, food, and personal items. We prepared meals and hot water for coffee on the concrete floor.
A priest came to the prison for Sunday Mass twice a month, but I never saw him. I was in a unit in the prison that did not have access to the prison Chapel and other programs. There is a sort of domino effect when prisoners claim to be wrongly convicted. My declaration of innocence rendered me ineligible for prison programs, and, by extension, for any hope for parole. It also rendered me ineligible for preferred prison housing in the general population.
The stereotype that all prisoners claim to be innocent is not at all accurate. Prisoners do not lightly make such a claim. In most prisons, there is an enormous price to pay for it. As one local lawyer put it, a convicted sex offender who says he’s sorry and won’t do it again will often serve a short sentence, but a middle-aged man who insists he is innocent may die in prison.
The cellblock had twenty-four cells each housing eight men. It was filled with the daily cacophony of overcrowded prisoners -80% of them barely in their 20’s – trying to occupy and entertain themselves. There was constant, senseless noise.
Late at night, after others would finally sleep, I would huddle in a corner of my bunk. There was not quite enough room to sit up straight because there was another steel bunk just above me. With my book light and a Roman Missal loaned to me by the chaplain, I would “celebrate” Mass surrounded by snoring prisoners.
I know these were not valid Masses. I had no elements of bread or wine. All I had were the readings and prayers, and the yearning in my heart for Christ’s Presence in this cold, dark place. For five years, that spectral shell of the Mass was all that I had – that, and a single volume breviary from which I prayed the Divine Office each day.
During that five years I was moved seventeen times – each time thrown into another cell with seven strangers. By design or not was unclear, but I was kept in a near constant state of adjustment and upheaval.
The atmosphere in which I lived day after day is difficult to describe. All the other prisoners knew I was a priest, or quickly found out after I moved in. The mental health of other prisoners is often an issue for anyone in prison. One night in the eight-man cell, I awoke at 3:00 AM smelling smoke. A prisoner with a book of matches was trying to ignite my blankets while I slept, insisting that Satan awoke him in the night and asked him to do so.
Distinctions between madness and malice blur in prison. One day, I returned to the cell to find my Roman Missal and breviary torn apart, their pages ripped out and flushed down a toilet. None of the seven other prisoners in my cell saw or knew anything. It took six months to replace the books. On another day I returned to find Satanic symbols drawn on the wall next to my bunk.
Years later, Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote to me of Father Walter Ciszek, S.J.:
“You are in a position to practice and to propose to others spirituality for the imprisoned. During my retreat this year I read more carefully than before Fr.Walter Ciszek’s, He Leadeth Me, with his reflections on five years in solitary and fifteen years of hard labor in Siberia. As I believe I have remarked before, much of the finest Christian literature comes from believers who were unjustly imprisoned.”
In his acclaimed book, With God in Russia (Ignatius Press,1997), Fr. Ciszek described in vivid detail being unjustly imprisoned for twenty years in a Siberian gulag, accused of being a “Vatican spy.” He suffered deprivations that made my imprisonment pale by comparison. Father Ciszek also wrote of how he celebrated the Sacrifice of the Mass which he could offer only in his heart:
“After breakfast, I would say Mass by heart – that is, I would say all the prayers, for of course I couldn’t actually celebrate the Holy Sacrifice.” I said the Angelus morning, noon, and night as the Kremlin clock chimed the hours.”
A few readers of These Stone Walls have mentioned Father Ciszek in their messages to me. I feel a special bond with him, especially in my experience of “Midnight Mass” huddled on my steel bunk in a crowded cell with no bread or wine. In prison, faith and spiritual surrender are not to be taken for granted. They were a struggle for Father Ciszek and remain a daily struggle for me.
PRESENCE AND ABSENCE
Toward the end of that first five years in prison, a new chaplain arrived, a Catholic deacon. A few weeks after his arrival, I was summoned to his office. He wanted me to read a presentation on Eucharistic Adoration that he had written for the diocesan diaconate program. I sat in his office dutifully reading his essay. When I looked up at one point, I noticed a small wooden tabernacle on a shelf in the corner of the office. The tabernacle was hand carved by a Catholic prisoner, and was incredibly beautiful.
Sitting there with the deacon’s essay in my hand, I noticed a small Sanctuary Lamp that was lit. I realized with a great jolt that the Blessed Sacrament was in the tabernacle in the deacon’s office. I felt overwhelmed, and tears came to my eyes. For the first time in over five years, I was in the Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. The chaplain smiled, apparently thinking that I was reacting to his essay.
Years ago as a young priest, I used to play racquetball early in the morning at a fitness center at which some friends gave me a membership. One of my occasional opponents was a local Protestant minister. I had a particularly good corner shot that he could never return. I used to jokingly call it “the Ecumenical Movement.” I almost always won, but he was getting pretty good at racquetball so it was a challenge for us both.
One day after an early morning game, the minister told me that he finds Catholics to be intriguing.
“If you truly believe that Christ is actually present in that tabernacle in your church,” he said, “how can you just go about your day knowing that He is there?”
His words stayed with me for many years. So many times as a priest, I took the Blessed Sacrament for granted. How many times had I passed by in the sanctuary, too busy to pause and ponder this living, enduring Presence in our midst? How many times had a busy day gone by without an hour spent in His Presence?
I have come to know on a deeply personal level -through the force of sheer deprivation – the importance of a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament. Many of you have commented here on These Stone Walls that you have devoted an hour of your Eucharistic Adoration for me. That means far more to me than you may know.
It’s an understatement that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” It is far more than that. My five year absence from Christ in the Eucharist had a more profound impact on me than did prison itself. It left me a spiritual barren wasteland, craving freedom not from stone walls and iron bars, but from the chasm of separation from the Church and Sacraments that many take for granted. I could see why, in our Creed, Christ descended to the dead. We could not come to Him.
After those moments before the Blessed Sacrament in the chaplain’s office, things fell into place quickly. The new chaplain invited me to celebrate Mass with him in his office weekly, and then he would use the Hosts for his Communion Service with Catholic prisoners.
Back in the unit with the crowded cells I had lived in for five years, a guard asked me to volunteer to do some weekly typing. He asked me one day if I would like something in return – perhaps a move to a better place. I asked for an hour’s use of a storage room to celebrate Mass in private once per week. It was a strange request for him, but he spoke with his superior. A week later he told me that I may use the storage room alone for one hour each Saturday night from 9:00 to 10:00 PM. It was all that I wanted.
The deacon-chaplain provided me with the necessary elements. A seminarian in Vietnam had hand woven a beautiful small stole for me, and sent it to the chaplain who gave it to me. It was a very special possession. It was the very bridge linking me with the Sacramental life of the Church from which I had known five years of alienation. That stole was my greatest treasure.
Shortly thereafter, I was moved to another unit in the prison. The cells were much smaller, and housed two prisoners each. Once again, I was thrown among strangers though it was easier for me to find time alone – often late at night – to celebrate Mass in my cell.
Then, suddenly and without warning one day, the Chaplain was gone from the prison. After a month, a new Chaplain, another deacon, arrived, but he could not find the items that his predecessor had secured for me for Mass. Shortly after, my cell was searched, and my Mass supplies and stole were taken by a guard. Prisoners are powerless over such things.
I was heartbroken as the guard took my stole, and mocked it, and me. He told me that he was an “ex-Catholic” and said he heard that I am “kicked out of the Church” and didn’t deserve to have it. He threatened to cite me for theft accusing me of stealing it from the prison Chapel. There was nothing I could do but watch as the guard walked out of my cell with my stole disrespectfully hanging out of his back pocket. It was a crushing blow, and it would be four years before I could restore the privilege of celebrating Mass again.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? (Romans 8:35-36)
The Sacrifice of the Mass Part 2
by Fr. Gordon J. MacRae on November 11, 2009 · 18 comments
Like many prison systems, this one learned long ago that television is a cost-effective tool for controlling prisoners. Prisoners can order a small television from an approved vendor, and the commissary profits pay for basic cable throughout the prison. Many prisons went this route years ago, and it saves enormous amounts of money. Prisoner TVs cost the taxpayers nothing. Without television, the size of the prison staff would have to double.
The sole television model that prisoners here can purchase is a small twelve inch “flat-screen” that sells for $200. That represents up to ten months’ pay for prison labor. Prisoners here earn between $1.00 and $2.00 per day depending on their job. There are far more prisoners than available jobs, however, so jobs – just as in the outside world – are not so easy to find these days.
Nonetheless, virtually every prisoner with a sentence longer than a few years will scrape and save to purchase a TV. It is seen as an indispensable link to the outside world. As a group, prisoners may surprise you about their viewing habits. There is very little interest in crime dramas. Most prisoners have lived their own, and don’t want to bother with someone else’s. Contrary to popular prejudice, they don’t root for the criminals in police shows either.
Most prisoners, even many of the younger ones, spend enormous amounts of time watching the news – either CNN or FOX. I think it belies some hope for them that they are deeply concerned for the affairs of the world.
A lot of people outside of here ask me what I watch on television. Okay, I’ll come clean. There are five programs I hate to miss: “Battlestar Gallactica,” “Lost,” “24,” “The Unit,” and the History Channel’s “The Universe.” There, I’ve said it! My sister calls them “guy shows,” and has no clue what I’m talking about when I mention a gripping episode. Two of my favorites are gone now, and two others are on hiatus until January 2010. It’s a long wait for Jack Bauer to save the world again.
I find most of everything else on commercial television to be disappointing, but if you want to recommend something I’ll give it a try.
I spend most of my time reading, but in the evening I also tune in to Hannity’s discussions and Greta Van Sustern on FOX News.
“The World Over” with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN was also a favorite. In April, 2005, I was riveted to Raymond Arroyo’s superb coverage of Pope John Paul’s death and very moving funeral Mass, and then the election of Pope Benedict XVI. Two of my regular correspondents then were Cardinal Dulles and Father Richard Neuhaus, and they were commentators with Mr. Arroyo.
Their commentary was excellent. I was moved to tears as I watched the coffin containing Pope John Paul II being carried away in final commemoration. Every Catholic prisoner here – even those long estranged from their Church – was silently riveted to their television screen.
EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo is American Catholicism’s best foot forward in broadcast media. He appeared on CNN one night at the very peak of vilification of the Church during the sex abuse scandal. Among the news commentators, his was a lone and compelling voice of reason and Gospel truths in the finest Catholic tradition. Raymond Arroyo deserves our attention.
AMONG OLD FRIENDS
For many Catholic prisoners, television is also a link to the life of the Church. It was providential that at about the very same time my Mass supplies were taken from me (see “The Sacrifice of the Mass: Part I), the local cable provider here began carrying EWTN for most of the day. For the next several years, my only access to daily Mass was the EWTN Mass for shut-ins. I think I qualify as a shut-in. At 8:00 AM each Sunday, and as many weekdays as possible, I “concelebrated” Mass with the Franciscan community in Irondale, Alabama. For an hour each morning, I was not in prison. I was before the Lord in the company of brothers.
Over time, I became most impressed with an older friar, Father Angelus Shaughnessey, and I wrote to him. Father Angelus responded with a gracious letter promising his prayers and inviting a regular correspondence. Father Angelus was often the celebrant, or a concelebrant, at the daily Mass, and he was a superb homilist. I felt I had come to know him through his letters and his frequent on-screen presence in my cell.
Also through EWTN, I renewed ties with an old friend, Father Benedict Joseph Groeschel . I have known Father Benedict since 1974. I spent my first four years of seminary formation with the Capuchin Province of St. Mary of which Father Benedict was a renowned member before he founded a reform group built on fidelity to the Rule of St. Francis. Father Benedict and I corresponded frequently before his more recent illness. He was very interested to learn that, through EWTN, he visited my cell at least weekly.
THE MASS IS ENDED
Then, suddenly, EWTN was gone. Early in 2008, EWTN converted to a digital signal ahead of the national transition that was to take place. To the dismay of many Catholic prisoners, EWTN was lost to us. The local cable company promised to restore it after the national transition to digital television, but that has not happened. EWTN is no longer available in the prison, and is deeply missed.
I am approached daily by Catholic prisoners asking how we can restore EWTN.
Without EWTN for daily Mass, I was stranded again. A friend challenged me to do all I can to regain the ability to celebrate the Eucharist. I wrote for an appointment with the current prison chaplain who told me he would approach prison officials for approval to have Mass supplies if our bishop also approved it.
I wrote to my bishop asking for his support to celebrate Mass in private in my cell. My bishop did not respond to my letter. He did, however, call the prison chaplain who conveyed to me the bishop’s position that it was never his intention that I be denied the opportunity for private Mass. With that affirmation, the chaplain met with the prison warden who readily approved my possession of Mass supplies. Charlene Duline located the Mass supplies I needed online, and had them shipped to the prison chaplain.
This all took a long time. Just last month, I received a Mass kit from the chaplain. When I brought it back to my cell and opened it, I was surprised to see that the stole that was taken from me four years ago was there. Somehow, it ended up with the prison chaplain, and spent four years in a desk drawer.
I celebrate Mass on Sunday night at 11:00 pm EST should you ever wish to join me in spiritual communion then.
I chose that time because this prison has “lock down” at 10 pm, and by 11:00 the cell block is quiet. Sometimes during the week I will also celebrate Mass at night when I can obtain the needed supplies. A few years ago, I received a letter from a layman who was very concerned about me. He wrote that he inquired of me with an official of my diocese and was told that I have abandoned my faith in prison and refuse all contact from my bishop and fellow priests. This could not be further from the truth.
In the Solar System of the life of the Church, I often feel as though I write from the Oort Cloud, but this is not about how I feel. The Sacrifice of the Mass brings into physical reality the sacrifice I try to make on a daily basis: the offer of suffering for the life of the Church. This was a serious challenge put to me by Cardinal Avery Dulles before his death, and it has been the center of every day in prison since. The Mass is an offering for ourselves, but it is also an offering OF ourselves. Cardinal Dulles wrote:
“I am sure that in the plans of divine Providence, your ministry of suffering is part of your priestly vocation, filling up for the Church ‘what is wanting in the suffering of Christ.’ Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound, will be a monument to your trials.”
It took me a long time to get this, to understand that what has happened to me is not all about me. I owe a debt to Cardinal Dulles. Please pray for him with me.
Being in no hurry at Mass in my cell I like to use the Roman Canon, an ancient Eucharistic Prayer and up until the Second Vatican Council the only Canon of the Mass. It is most beautiful. I pray then for the readers of These Stone Walls. If you have posted comments here, then I often pray for you by name.
After Mass, I pray a Communion prayer by Padre Pio. It’s hard to hold on to things in prison, and I had lost the prayer for awhile, but it was recently sent to me again. I reproduce it here in its entirety because it’s a beautiful prayer, and speaks directly to the limits placed on life in troubled times and places. Perhaps you can print it for your own use:
Stay with Me, Lord
A Communion Prayer by St. Pio of Pietrelcina
Stay with me, Lord, for it is necessary to have You present so that I do not forget You. You know how easily I abandon You.
Stay with me, Lord, because I am weak and I need Your strength, that I may not fall so often.
Stay with me, Lord, for You are my life, and without You, I am without meaning and hope.
Stay with me, Lord, for You are my light, and without You I am in darkness.
Stay with me, Lord, to show me Your will.
Stay with me, Lord, so that I can hear Your voice and follow You.
Stay with me, Lord, for I desire to love You ever more, and to be in Your company always.
Stay with me, Lord, if You wish me to be always faithful to You.
Stay with me, Lord, for as poor as my soul is, I wish it to be a place of consolation for You, a dwelling of Your love.
Stay with me, Jesus, for it is getting late; the days are coming to a close and life is passing. Death, judgment and eternity are drawing near. It is necessary to renew my strength, so that I will not stop along the way, and for that I need You. It is getting late and death approaches. I fear the darkness, the temptations, the dryness, the cross, the sorrows.
0 how I need You, my Jesus, in this night of exile!
Stay with me, Jesus, because in the darkness of this life, with all its dangers, I need You.
Help me to recognize You as Your disciples did at the Breaking of the Bread, so that the Eucharistic Communion be the light which disperses the darkness, the power which sustains me, the unique joy of my heart.
Stay with me, Lord, because at the hour of my death I want to be one with You, and if not by Communion, at least by Your grace and love.
Stay with me, Jesus. I do not ask for divine consolations because I do not deserve them, but I only ask for the gift of Your Presence. Oh yes! I ask this of You!
Stay with me, Lord, for I seek You alone, Your love, Your grace, Your will, Your Heart, Your Spirit, because I love You and I ask for no other reward but to love You more and more, with a strong and active love.
Grant that I may love You with all my heart while on earth, so that I can continue to love You perfectly throughout all eternity, dear Jesus. Amen!”