(updated for All Saints Day)
by Charles McKelvy
When at Saint Dismas, do as the regulars do: kneel on the concrete floor.
That’s right—KNEEL ON THE CONCRETE FLOOR!!!!
As a first-time visitor to the Catholic community in the chapel of the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City named for the Good Thief, I was more than curious to see what posture the inmates and volunteer-visitors would assume for the Eucharistic Prayer. With no kneelers to serve them, I assumed they would remain standing.
As soon as the Holy, holy, holy was history, the congregation dropped to their knees on the cold, concrete floor. Well, our knees, I because I was worshipping side-by-side with an inmate friend who I knew to be 70-something-and-then-some.
My friend has a few years me on me, a mere 60-something-and-then-some, so he set quite the example of humble piety by hitting that unforgiving concrete floor without hesitation. Plus, he has basketball knees from his glory days in high school.
Having been a low-impact swimmer in high school, my knees are just fine—thank you very much—so I had no excuse whatsoever.
Well, I did have some reluctance and a few reservations. Just the thought of hitting that cold, concrete with my 60-something knees made me say ouch out loud.
But I had no real reason to remain standing when men with more years and fears than me hit the deck.
So I hit the deck.
And it wasn’t so bad.
Hard and cold, yes, but not so bad that it didn’t force me to focus my mind and body on the great mystery of transubstantiation unfolding before me.
So, yes, I hit the deck, and I am so glad I did, because kneeling on that cold, concrete floor next to a man with basketball knees enabled me to put a little personal sacrifice into the Eucharistic Prayer and to grow in love of the Lord and my brothers.
And when the Mass was ended and they applauded me for joining them that Sunday at Saint Dismas, I said that was all the encouragement I needed to return to the Church of the Good Thief and take another crack at their concrete kneelers.
And, yes, I have been returning so regularly that friends at my home parish of Saint Agnes in Sawyer, Michigan have sent out the posse for me.
When they found me and asked where I have been, I said I have been attending Sunday Mass at a Catholic community in Michigan City, Indiana where most of the congregation wears khaki and doesn’t get out much.
“You’re going to church at a garment factory?”
“No,” I said. “I am performing a Corporal Work of Mercy every Sunday by worshipping with prisoners. Inmates. Convicts. Felons. You know.”
They do know.
And one friend commended me for it; saying if you really want to find Christ on any given Sunday, attend Mass at Saint Dismas.
And so I go to Saint Dismas on those Sundays when I do not have a meeting of Benedictine Oblates at the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Chicago, and what I find are brothers in Christ. Oh, and the occasional sister in Christ, who, like me, is a volunteer from outside the walls.
The concrete kneelers have not softened with age, but my aging knees are adjusting, and although there are no donuts and coffee to enjoy after the Mass is ended, there is usually a goodly stretch of time in which to share experience, strength and hope with my brothers behind bars.
One inmate suggested early on that I simply make myself available after Mass. “When they see you coming week after week and participating in the Mass (I was asked to lead the Psalm one Sunday and directed to assist with Communion on another), they will open up to you.”
And they have, and the effect is spiritually enriching.
To say the least.
While the seal of the confessional does not apply in my case, I am compelled to seal my lips and refuse to disclose what my brothers in khaki have shared with me after Mass.
But I will say that they are not so different from this sinner who is penning this confession.
Indeed, there is a sign on the wall at the back of the chapel proclaiming:
But for the Grace of God.
That is sufficient grace for me, and enough grace to keep me going back to Saint Dismas every Sunday for more.
Oh, and I simply cannot conclude without leaving you with this tantalizing word for the day: camerado.
It is from a line in a Walt Whitman poem, and it is perhaps the favorite word of one Father David T. Link, the widower priest who regularly celebrates Mass at Saint Dismas and shares the love of Christ with his cameradoes throughout the vast village-within-a-city known as Indiana State Prison.
Father Link is the subject of the 2013 book, Camerado, I Give You My Hand: How a Powerful Lawyer-Turned-Priest is Changing the Lives of Men Behind Bars by Maura Poston Zagrans. (I just ordered another copy from: Amazon.com for less than $30.)
After devouring the book in two sittings, I greeted Father Link the next time I saw him before Mass at Saint Dismas with—well—you guessed it: “Camerado, I give you my hand.”
Father Link gave me his warm hand and an even warmer smile,
but more about that next time.
Much, much more.
Now please go in peace to love and serve the Lord, even if it means loving men in khaki who don’t get out much.