If you had asked me in seminary what my favorite parts of the priesthood would be, I can almost guarantee that prison ministry would not have come to mind. In fact, I never even really considered that it would be an option - that was something special chaplains did, not "normal priests."
Happily, I was wrong.
Every Tuesday, myself or my pastor go to a state prison in the area to hear confessions, teach the faith, and celebrate Mass. It's proven to be one of my favorite ministries and, even when I am not in the mood to go through all the security and set up all the stuff we need, I always walk out of there encouraged and thankful.
The men we visit cannot leave there and, for them, our visits are a big part of their experience of the Church.
Yesterday, our bishop came with us to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation with 14 of those men. This is the second time I've been able to be a part of this celebration at the prison, but the excitement on the faces of the men who were confirmed was just as powerful as last year. Whatever has happened to them in the past, whatever they've done to be in prison - God is working in their lives and they are a part of the Body of Christ.
That last point is important.
Jesus told us that, along with feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned is important: "whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matthew 25:40) While all of us can find ways to help those in need, it may seem difficult to follow Jesus' command in regard to prisoners. The average Catholic can't just show up at the front gate and expect to be let in.
However, as members of the Body of Christ, we are all connected. We can pray for our brothers and sisters behind bars even if we don't personally know them. Our charity still counts even when it's not face to face.
I count myself blessed to be able to minister, in person, to men who are suffering and well aware of the need we all have for the grace of God. They are temporary members of our parish, though we'll never see them at Sunday Mass. All of us, though, can share in prayer and sacrifice for all the imprisoned - that they will know God's love and be strengthened to do His will.