This post is the second in a two-part series. Please click here for The sacrifice of the Mass Part 1.
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.
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!”