Fulfilling one of his roles as bishop, the Most Reverend Richard J. Malone celebrated Mass for inmates at the Erie County Holding Center on the evening of April 1. He told the 16 orange-clad inmates who attended the Mass in the chapel that he made the visit because Jesus said to.
"The reason I am here tonight, really, is because the Lord Jesus told me to come," Bishop Malone said. "He didn't tell me in a dream or a great vision. He told me in the 25th chapter of Matthew's Gospel. Jesus said one day at the end of time there will be Judgment Day and God will separate the sheep from the goats. And he'll say to the sheep, 'Enter into the kingdom I prepared for you because when I was hungry, you fed Me; when I was thirsty, you gave Me drink; when I was naked, you clothed Me; when I was in prison, you came and visited Me.'"
The bishop, as is his custom, welcomed everyone attending the service, including the 10 police officers on hand and Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard.
"To visit people who are in your situation, incarcerated, is something Jesus tells Christians to do. I do it happily. Also, if you are Catholic, you are part of the flock and I am your shepherd. So, this is where I need to be. If you're not Catholic, I care about you, too," the bishop said.
Two inmates participated in the Mass by doing the readings. Deacon Miguel Santos, who has an assignment of charity at the holding center, read the rather lengthy story of Lazarus from the Gospel of John.
The bishop acknowledged that outside of the reading of Jesus' Passion on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, this was the longest Gospel ever proclaimed.
The bishop shared a story from his days as a newly-ordained priest at 26 years old, serving in a Massachusetts parish. Bishop Malone received word that a horrible car accident had injured a young couple and jetted to the nearby hospital.
The wife was merely scratched, but the husband laid in the trauma unit fighting for his life. Bishop Malone anointed the man, who began to recover over night. Three days later, the man was well on his way to recovering, but had amnesia. Despite the good news, Bishop Malone found the wife in a hallway crying. Even though her husband was physically improving, he had forgotten "the most important things" - their meeting, dating, falling in love, engagement, wedding day, the first couple years of their marriage.
"I've kept that story ever since, and the reason I share with you is because of those words she spoke. She said, 'It's the amnesia that's getting to me. He's forgotten so many of the most important things,'" Bishop Malone recalled. "My point is that any of us can get a sort of amnesia, not from an accident or anything happening to our heads, (but) just plain life makes us forgetful of really important stuff. It happens in my life. Just everyday living with its challenges and all. With you guys, I imagine it's very much the case. There are all kinds of stuff going on inside your heads and outside your heads. We can forget some of the important things God really wants us to remember. For example, His unconditional love for us; His mercy that he extends to us; the fact that He always gives us another opportunity to move forward from the past. Does that sound good to you? Me too. He always gives us a chance to take a step forward. And He just doesn't give us a shove, He walks with us. ... That's the kind of stuff I don't want you men and women to get amnesia about."
This was Bishop Malone's first time at the holding center, although he has made visits to the state prisons in Attica, Collins and Albion. Visiting those in prison is part of his role as bishop, one he sees as important to his ministry.
"Anybody who is Catholic is part of my responsibility. I'm the shepherd of every single Catholic. I also try to reach out to people who are not, in the name of the Lord," the bishop explained after the Mass. "When I have an opportunity to come to a place where people are incarcerated, I want to do that. It's part of my work that I honor and want to do."
Often during his homily, the bishop mentioned a need for people to look forward, as he does, and leave past mistakes and regrets behind them.
"I pray for them, that they'll be able to get their lives together and move on," he said. "I always try to give a message of hope that mentions repentance and letting go of the past. Our God is a God of the future who calls us forward."
Deacon Santos visits the holding center every Saturday for a prayer service. He brings a priest for Mass when possible.
"I very much enjoy coming to the county jails," he said. "I've been involved with prison ministry through Kairos in the state prisons for 25 years. About a year and a half ago I was assigned here. I think I have a wonderful relationship with the inmates here because after a while you get to know who people are. Even though it is transient here, you build a connectedness. There is a yearning. The inmates want to have Mass and they want to practice their faith. I feel it's a blessing. I really do enjoy it."
Inmates stay at the holding center anywhere from a few hours to two weeks. Clergy from various denominations make regular visits.
Sheriff Howard, who stood through the Mass, was grateful for the bishop's visit.
"This is the boss, who could have sent other people, but came himself," he said.