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    person holding a communion wafer

    Who Needs Communion?

    When Covid lockdowns hit my prison, I hungered for the Eucharist. Now that we can meet again, will we lose that hunger?

    By G. A. Hernandez

    January 31, 2022
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    • Jean-paul marie justin

      I don't get it. These traumatic covidesque restrictions - were going on for elder generation after elder generation -- long before the more robust types heard the word "covid" and "lockdown" moved you from compassion into what you thought was an empathetic understanding. And since I can't insert links to hard data - many of us old people would find prison conditions a bit of holiday. Old people embrace whatever form 5 loaves and 2 fish come in. For some of us, isolation (or the sand of the desert experience) happened overnight with a diagnosis or a fall or a stroke and a doctor saying that THIS was as good as it gets and maybe, maybe they could slow the decline. A trip to the living room from the bedroom would be a "treat" a celebratory experience. Old people who are no longer roadworthy, devoid of public or private transportation aka the HOMEBOUND have been carrying this cross year after year. All we "did" was get old. We are prisoners to time. None of us will pop up and be 50 again. At the age of 75 - 44% are women living alone - solitary in the United States. 2020 census Everyday -- over 12000 people turn 65. In 8 years ALL BABY BOOMERS - 73 MILLION of us, will be at least 65. And that is inclusive of the majority of Catholic Clergy in America. We will be taking our corporate knowledge with us as we retire from the government safety-net services, welfare NGOS -- we were the one's who knew how to get things to work from experience. That means fewer people to serve those in need of serves. That means those who provided services are going to be needing to be served. Now ? We watch the erosion of services and livestreaming because old people who either can't or shouldn't be in a pew are not part of the parish consciousness. And when the Synodal process unfolds -- old people -- will not have a seat at that table either. Before Covid? The parish risk management insurance would prefer us to stay off the property to reduce liability insurance premiums. There was the grumble over wheel chair accessible pews and potties. A couple of handicapped parking spaces were ok but the price of ramp access! a budget buster. Some parishes closed and merged rather than incur the expenses. Corporate Caravans scooped our support families - if we ever had them - and scattered them across the continent. Some of us got to go along as "affordable (read free) day care. Leaving behind, decades of familiarity and networks. Before Covid -- We struggled to get groceries. We worried over how to get prescriptions filled or renewed when predicated on a doctor visit. We left/retired before computer literacy was a mandatory qualification for employment. Many who responded to covid -- put it online -- assuming that everyone had access and digital literacy. Ask old people how we cope with what is a transitory experience for you? We cope with Month after month of isolation and have discovered spiritual communion over a cup of coffee and bowl of cereal. "Lord! if you wanted too -- you could -- and if you did -- I would be truly grateful. Ask us how we've found the grace to be aware of the Presence of God beyond the artificial limitation of the Church Doors. Ask us because it seems that even the monastics find covid an untenable intrusion. Isolation? The slow erosion of a door bell ringed as herald of a "visit" becomes a predatory sales team targeting senior. Consider actually welcoming the ring of spam phone calls for the surprise of the sound -- Those who DO have us as their target demographic recognize our vulnerability and exploit it. Remember We were - the post World War II babies who multiplied parish and school construction -- Who were to honor our elders. Do you Remember when? When sending a kid to seminary kept him from being drafted - vocation or not it was an honorable dodge that no one questioned. In obedience - we went. When sending a kid to be a nun or a priest was a viable way to get a paid for education and earned you pew primacy to boot as fruitful parents. In obedience - we went. When we were drafted and turned into lean mean killing machines - in obedience - we went. When we were the pioneers of new frontiers that are now the "givens" the "but of course "minimal expectations for next generations. When we were the challengers of the hypocrisy of racism, sexism, and biases long condoned and literally "capitalized on". We were born for this season! If you want to learn from our journey in the old people experience -- start by asking, we are modeling a new elder not through denial of the reality of the experience but by naming and taming this new desert spirituality that may have a McDonalds on the corner. We know there will not be a priest to come to hear our confessions. Covid showed how flummoxed clergy were to anoint the dying. While Bishops seek sanctuary in theology rather than find solutions, we will die alone. The probabilities are that high, such that If we do find a Medicare bed in a nursing home it may be in another state or many miles from any of the faith support we were had when among the pewed at parishes long closed and shuttered for lack of staffing and priests to serve. We are the new monastics. We are the voice of one crying in the wilderness and STILL trying to make straight the way of the Lord. Deep within our faith traditions there are the tools, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. We have Our Lord Jesus Christ's promise - Our God is with us always and everywhere. It is our calling to be holy to feed the hungry even with only 2 fish and 5 loves. and the odds are -- this will not be posted. And the editor will sigh and ask what this has to do with a comment on a column on Prisons? everything! It is a yes -and! and I am pressing submit before I succumb to the temptation to hit delete instead.

    • Rosemary Molloy

      Thank you Mr Hernandez, our parish has a ministry of sending birthday, Christmas and Easter cards to each man and woman on death row in Alabama. We are pen pals to some, who share their faith experiences with us. We are blessed by knowing them. Hearing your words in our hearts, we send prayers of hope to you.

    • Michelle

      Thank you for sharing this with us. My heart aches for you, and your fellow prisoners. I share your sorrow, the abandonment so many of us felt over locked churches, and so many other decisions made. I am happy you will return to your family this year! God bless you!

    The last Mass held at Federal Correctional Institution Bastrop was on Friday, March 27, 2020. Why a Friday? In federal prisons, each faith group is assigned one hour of worship. Between our priest’s availability and the prison’s scheduling, Friday became our “Sunday.” I’m not complaining. Unlike many incarcerated Catholics, we at FCI Bastrop have a pastor to minister to us. We consider ourselves a mission church of the local parish. And a vibrant mission we were: over fifty regular Mass attendees; a music ministry and parish council; an active catechism class with eight men scheduled to enter the church that April; Bible study and rosary groups.

    In the first months of 2020 we anxiously watched the news as Covid crept toward our fences. We sensed something ominous approaching, and our faith communities prayed for the swift end the government predicted. On April 3, as the first large-scale outbreaks ravaged various prisons, the entire Federal Bureau of Prisons went on a preventative quarantine. For three months we remained in our cells twenty-three hours a day, with one hour of liberty restricted to our immediate floor. Needless to say, collective worship ground to a halt.

    As our Catholic community’s pastoral coordinator, I felt prepared to handle my devotional needs for the interim. I knew the times Mass airs on the radio. With my Bible and a few spiritual books, and subscriptions to St. Anthony Messenger, National Catholic Register, and Plough Quarterly, I was ready for solo devotion. But my Catholic brothers in the dorm had a fraction of my resources, and my daily hour of liberty often involved encouraging men through their doors, sharing radio program times, and trying to jam whatever print resources I had over their thresholds. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was what I can only describe as spiritual loneliness.

    It was jarring to change so abruptly from communal worship and participatory faith to purely solitary devotions. Sharing a seventy-square-foot cell with two other men for twenty-three hours a day, one may think that a little community would be inherent. But in such prolonged, forced proximity, I found myself in the juxtaposition of craving solitude to worship while also yearning for the companionship of my brothers in Christ. To me, Christianity is a team sport. Without companions, it loses much of its meaning and is impossible to practice effectively.

    Come July, our out-of-cell time increased to two hours daily, and we were able to mix with more floors of our dorm – maybe one hundred fifty men in total. I wasn’t alone in my hunger for fellowship. When some other Christians started a daily prayer and encouragement group, I joined. But unfortunately, few of my fellow Catholic Christians chose to attend.

    A common theme I’ve observed of the Catholic brothers over the years is an aversion to attending events not involving Mass or including a priest. I suspect this issue isn’t specific to prison parishes. Yet our ecumenical fellowship, born of exigency, was the most beautiful and consoling manifestation of our faith that I experienced during those long months. We soon learned that similar groups had sprung up in every dorm, a powerful example of the Spirit at work. Every night, one of the group leaders would deliver a short exhortation. Afterward we would join hands and each send our petitions and thanksgiving to the Lord, then hurry back to our cells. If only prison-themed reality TV would show fifteen men in a hallway, hands joined, sharing their hopes and fears with God and each other.

    person holding a communion wafer

    Photograph by Carlynn Alarid

    Covid finally breached our walls in October. Roughly half the prison fell ill. Fortunately, only one man died. Sixty days of total lockdown, only allowed out of our cells every seventy-two hours to shower, silenced our burgeoning fellowship through Advent and Christmas. Looking out my little window at the gray sky, I listened to Christmas Mass at the Vatican, struggling to imagine only thirty worshipers in cavernous Saint Peter’s Basilica. The prison fed us a special meal in Styrofoam containers, but what I hungered for was the Eucharist.

    In January, I was moved to another dorm for a special program. Now allowed out of the cell all day, we were still locked in our building and segregated from the other dorms. Winter passed into spring, and we continued to practice our faith communally in whatever corner we could squeeze into, and individually with our rosaries. As ten of us celebrated sacred liturgies huddled in a dark hallway, I took comfort that our simple service was more akin to the first Christian liturgies than the Masses being offered in the grand cathedrals of the world.

    We recently learned that our ministers have been cleared to return, and that Masses will be resuming. We’re still segregated by dorm, but at least the ten Catholics with whom I live can finally partake in communion together. Fifteen months of reciting a prayer for spiritual communion while I listen to voices on the radio consume the real thing is becoming rote. And to be honest, it is not nearly as spiritually consoling as the occasions we share a bagel and grape juice in our ecumenical gatherings.

    I know that the absence of our ministers for fifteen months is due to the prison’s Covid lockdown and not their unwillingness to serve. Yet I can’t help but feel, as I know many do, that the institutional church has not risen to the mission of shepherding the faithful through this tribulation. I remember reading of the priests and nuns who braved the plague to administer the sacraments and accompany the sick and dying, of Saint Damian of Molokai and Saint Francis’s ministry to lepers. Yet during the pandemic, even the healthy, free faithful were largely cut off from their pastors, locked out of their churches, and left to read a substitute prayer instead of communing with Christ. It seems like, in an overzealous attempt to protect the health and life of our bodies, we sacrificed the wellbeing of our souls. “For those who want to save their life will lose it …” (Mark 8:35).

    Prison operations will eventually go back to normal – whatever the new “normal” may be. We don’t know who remains of our Catholic community. Between releases and transfers, turnover has been massive. There are dozens of friends and brothers whom I will not see again this side of heaven. We’ll have to start over with our catechism. Our parish council will need new members. And our first order of business will be similar to the challenge of real-world parishes: convincing men who haven’t been to church in fifteen months to return.

    Thankfully, I don’t need to worry about results. The Lord will call whom he wills: both new and long-dormant seed. The mission church of FCI Bastrop will continue. And my faith, though sorely tested, has developed, deepened, and endured. I pray that what we’ve created during this Covid purgatory endures. Namely, our hunger for the Eucharist.

    Contributed By

    G. A. Hernandez is an inmate at the federal prison in Bastrop, Texas, where he has been incarcerated for fifteen years. He holds degrees in sociology and public health and serves as parish administrator and Eucharistic minister for the prison’s Catholic community. He has written for the St. Anthony Messenger. He will be returning to his family in summer of 2022.

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