PROVIDENCE, R.I. — While he offers Mass and confession, and officiates at marriages and funerals at Church of St. Mary and St. Francis Chapel here,Michael Joyce, OFM, considers his ministry in a sparse dining room at a maximum-security prison one of his most rewarding.
“It’s one of the most satisfying ministries,” said Michael. “These guys are in prison for 40 years to life, and to see that they have some kind of hope, and that I’m part of bringing that hope to their lives is satisfying.”
Michael has been offering Mass at the Adult Corrections Institutes of Rhode Island in Cranston on Sunday mornings since he arrived in Providence in 2002. He said he encourages inmates to have a meaningful life. “Just because they are in a prison, does not mean that they cannot have a meaningful life.”
Rhode Island Catholic Profile
Michael’s work, and that of other prison chaplains and ministers, was featured in the Rhode Island Catholic, the publication of the Diocese of Providence, on Oct. 8. The headline read, “Chaplains bring God to inmates.”
Michael is quoted in the article as saying: “What strikes me is that having Eucharist with these men is the same as with people in a parish community. They are basically good guys who made mistakes and are paying for it.”
Mass at the prison, held in the dining room, normally draws about 22 men, according to Michael. Four lay people from St. Francis Chapel usually accompany him, and the readings are done by the inmates.
“They also do intercessions,” he added, praying for their families and world events. “They are very conscious of what is going on in the world.”
When Michael taught them the responsorials, he sang, “My God, my soul is thirsting for you.” When he offered that they might substitute “my soul is thirsting for freedom,” they declined.
Seeking Peace and Forgiveness
“These men who come to Mass are seeking peace with themselves, their God and their community. They find through the Eucharist reconciliation with God, and that God forgives them.”
When asked if prison ministry was difficult, Michael responded, “No, no, no. These guys are locked up, many for life, and they are so thankful that people come in and say ‘hello’ to them.”
Over the past few years, inmates have also studied for confirmation and baptism, which is usually done once a year by retired bishops from the diocese. The bishops also celebrate the Christmas Mass.
In addition to hearing confession, Michael, a native of Newark, N.J., makes himself available for five to 10 minutes before and after Mass to talk with inmates. Sometimes their questions and concerns are referred to the prison chaplain.
Michael said, “Jesus said blessed are those who visit the prison. And I am blessed.”
— Wendy Healy, a Connecticut-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.