Of all the Sorrowful Mysteries a priest endures in prison, losing the ability to offer Mass tops the list. If you are Catholic, be careful what you take for granted.
The most frequent question I am asked by the readers of These Stone Walls these days is whether or not I am still able to offer Mass on Sunday night in my cell. Most readers know that for the last sixteen of my nearly 23 years in this prison, I lived in relative sanity in a place with two prisoners per cell. During that time, I was able to offer Mass late on Sunday night after a final prisoner count of the day. Many readers joined me in that time in an hour of prayer or even Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. They joined me in spirit and in truth.
For the last eight years, my roommate was Pornchai Moontri. At first, he remained oblivious to the Sacrifice of the Mass going on late at night down below as he slept in an upper bunk. A year later, Pornchai underwent a radical conversion and was received into the Church on Divine Mercy Sunday 2010. That story was told powerfully by Catholic author Felix Carroll.
Seven months ago, as most readers know, prison officials here decided to use the cells we lived in for prisoners in the last year of their sentence. This threw our lives into upheaval as we were forced to relocate to a place with eight prisoners per cell, a very difficult way to serve a sentence of 67 years. Pornchai and I ended up in the same cell, and at the time so did our friend, Kewei Chen, and for that, we had much gratitude. As for the rest of the neighborhood, I described our new home in “Hebrews 13:3: Writing Just This Side of the Gates of Hell.”
So, the answer to the question that begins this post is no, I am not currently able to offer Mass, but this is nothing new. My first seven years in this prison were spent confined in a cell shared by eight prisoners. During those years, I had no access at all to Mass or the Sacraments. Less than 20 miles from the Chancery Office of my diocese, I was entirely cut off from the life of the Church. I wrote of this deprivation in a two-part post when These Stone Walls first came into being in “The Sacrifice of the Mass” (Part One and Part Two).
I hope you will read those posts. In any other circumstance, I would say that the current loss is a grave spiritual setback, but now I know better. There was a lot that happened in that time of deprivation that focused me on all that really matters.
Pornchai and I knew on the day we were moving in that we could no longer trust our environment to be stable from day to day. I could not risk disrespect, or worse, desecration, of the Blessed Sacrament. At best, I risked the Mass becoming a point of negative focus and contention. As the move took place near the end of October, 2016, I had to leave my Mass supplies with the prison chaplain, a Catholic deacon, for safe keeping. He had provided me with the elements to offer Mass each week for several years, but he agreed with my decision. He holds my Mass kit for future hope.
We live in a place where the refuse of humanity is cast off in a prison within a prison. It is so overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded that the concept of “corrections” – which implies some restorative justice – has given way to nothing more redemptive than warehousing. To offer Mass in such a place seems such a bizarre contradiction that it would become too much of a focal point.
There is no Upper Room here. There is no Road to Emmaus, no sanctuary. My friend, TSW reader Father Joseph Coffey offered Mass in a war zone in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan – and at times even offered it for me – but Mass cannot be offered here where I live.
So, for now, we take part in a Sunday morning Mass offered by a very good Capuchin priest, age 81, who volunteers to come to the prison chapel since his retirement from parish ministry. When we first moved to this place seven months ago, Pornchai and I and one other were the only prisoners from this crowded unit who went. Now a dozen others go with us.
We – Pornchai Moontri and I – accept that our lives are filled with irony and paradox, and now our Sacrifice of the Mass has once again been sacrificed to that paradox. On the day I am typing this post, we are beginning a six-week Sunday evening retreat in the prison chapel. Ironically, it’s a presentation of The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, a book by Scott Hahn on the Scriptural roots of the Sacrifice of the Mass. The retreat is moderated by the same Marian volunteers who accompanied us through 33 Days to Morning Glory.
I have a friend who took an extended luxury cruise last year. From some exotic port along the way, she sent me a copy of the cruise ship’s gourmet menu. Having dined on nothing but prison food for 22 years, I stared at it in disbelief. I felt a little like the once rich man who, upon death, is tormented by a vision of the poor man’s Heavenly banquet with Abraham (Luke 16:19-31). So now our paradox continues. Deprived of the means to offer Mass for seven months, we are now to delve into its spiritual depths in the company of Dr. Scott Hahn. The book’s Introduction is by Father Benedict Groeschel who seems to be serving this prison sentence with me.
WHEN I WAS IN PRISON
I may never understand what brings people from around the world to These Stone Walls. For the last year or so, a mind-boggling weekly traffic report is printed and sent to me showing basic information about the numbers of visitors to this site in a given week. From inside this crowded, stark prison cell in Concord, New Hampshire, it just amazes us that people from Alaska to Australia and virtually every place in between are reading about us.
At the top of each report is a list of the 15 most-viewed posts of the week. I have to admit that it always feels a little strange when I struggle to finish a post in this setting, then learn that the most read post of the week was one I wrote five years ago. Very often, the number one spot, and always at least in number two, is “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men,” a post I wrote almost as an afterthought near Father’s Day in 2012. It has since been shared nearly 11,000 times on Facebook alone.
That post is about elephants and fatherhood, but it is also about prison, everyone’s least favorite topic. If I refrain from writing about prison – a place that has held me in unjust captivity for going on 23 years – it feels a bit like refusing to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
But I have learned something about the science of writing. I don’t want to give away all my secrets, but whenever I mention prison in my title, the post has far fewer readers than most other posts. I have never set out to mask what I am writing about behind a clever title, but I can see in hindsight that if a post appears at first glance to be about prison, it just drops off the radar screen.
You have to get almost all the way to the end of my “Story of Elephants and Men” before you realize that it’s about prison. So 11,000 people who got that far liked it so much they each shared it on their Facebook pages. Another post I wrote was also about prison, but you would not know that until you read all of it. That post is also one that I wrote five years ago, but it remains among the top 15 most-read posts from week to week. It is “Les Miserables The Bishop and the Redemption of Jean Valjean.” Fans of Les Miserables flock to that post still but its premise is Victor Hugo’s moving tale of the redemption of Jean Valjean emerging from 19 years of unjust imprisonment.
When I wrote my post, “Hebrews 13:3 – Writing Just This Side of the Gates of Hell” a few months back, I was totally surprised by its traffic report. It was a rather graphic snapshot of recent life on planet prison but you could not know that by the title. Strangely, it was posted unbidden by SpiritDaily.com, and readers by the thousands came to it from there. I have written many posts that are hopeful and triumphant, and Spirit Daily lets them pass by in favor of one about the dismal forebodings of prison. I don’t get it.
I may have made a strategic error a few weeks ago when I wrote openly of prison in my title, “Prisons for Profit and Other Perversions of Justice.” It’s a piece of writing that I feel in my heart the people of a just society ought to know about, but it was one of my least read and shared posts of recent months.
I think readers judged from its title that it was a political pitch for prison reform, but it was a lot more than that. One of the most profoundly moving experiences I have is when I receive letters from readers who tell me that These Stone Walls has exposed them to a world they never thought much about. Others tell me that they think a little differently about prisons or prisoners as result of what they have read and pondered here. A smaller minority are simply attached immovably to views that may not be sustained if they knew the whole truth. I do not write to change minds, or even hearts. I just write the truth.
The Catholic news aggregator site, PewSitter, shared my post on “Prisons for Profit.” and I am very proud of them for doing so. After I wrote it, I learned that the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests blocked any further notifications from TSW from coming to their mailbox. That saddened me deeply – not for me, but for them. I cannot help but wonder how many of its members have ever visited a prison, a land of the lost. Fidelity to the Gospel – as well as to justice and mercy – requires that we not simply settle for “lost.”
In contrast, I received a recent letter from Deacon David Norman of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. Deacon Norman and his wife, Terry, have visited me in this prison – a long way from home. In his recent letter, he told me that he has become involved with an Alternatives to Violence project offered in prison, and finds it to be a deeply rewarding experience. When Jesus comes will he find faith on Earth? I hope I’m standing next to Deacon David Norman on that day!
Our friend, Pornchai Moontri, has been working diligently on a secret woodworking project in the Hobby Craft wood shop here. I was over there for an ICC meeting last week, and I spotted him shaping some beautiful black walnut for his project, so during a break in my meeting, I went over to check it out.
What I saw was simply awesome! It’s a Divine Mercy keepsake box, beautifully hand made from black walnut and maple, that he plans to present as a gift to a friend who has exemplified Divine Mercy for him. Later that day, he asked me what he might inscribe as a brief quote on the box. I made a few suggestions to him about Divine Mercy, or the Resurrection appearances, or the awe of Pentecost.
What he arrived at on his own was an unexpected quote that tells a profound story of Divine Mercy. It’s just a few simple words from the Gospel of Matthew (25:36) about the just judgment of the nations when Jesus comes again. It is one of the Gospel measurements of Divine Mercy in our hearts “When I was in prison, you came to me.” (Matthew 25:36)
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Please assist us by sharing this post. I asked Pornchai Moontri to obtain a photograph of his Divine Mercy keepsake box which he is presenting as a gift to someone who has been the face of Divine Mercy for us. Two photos are posted below. This meticulous craftsmanship took some time, but he can make another if anyone wants to ask him in advance. You may inquire at thesestonewalls [at] gmail [dot] com