REDGRANITE — Behind a makeshift altar standing in the shadows of a basketball hoop, Bishop David Ricken celebrated Mass Nov. 2 in a gymnasium that could have been mistaken for any Catholic school gym in the Diocese of Green Bay.
But the uniformed security officers stationed at the gym’s entrance, as well as the two security checkpoints situated in areas outside of the athletic facility, made it clear that this was not an ordinary gymnasium.
Nor was it an ordinary Mass.
As part of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Bishop Ricken celebrated Mass for inmates at Redgranite Correctional Institution, a medium security adult male correctional institution located in Redgranite, a village in Waushara County about 80 miles southwest of Green Bay. The prison is operated by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections with a staff of 293 and an inmate population of approximately 1,000, according to the facility’s 2016 annual report.
About 75 inmates, both Catholic and non-Catholic, attended the liturgy and received a special blessing from Bishop Ricken on behalf of Pope Francis at the end of Mass.
In addition to Bishop Ricken, several diocesan staff members, clergy from the Green Bay and Madison dioceses and prison ministry volunteers from local parishes attended the Mass. Mary Armbrust, Pastoral Care and Ministry coordinator for the Green Bay Diocese, organized the visit. She said it was the last of three Year of Mercy activities she has helped organize. The other two included care ministry coordinators, parish nurses and volunteers serving adults with disabilities.
“This has been in the works almost since Pope Francis announced” the Year of Mercy, said Armbrust, who served as cantor at the Mass. “We finally got permission (from the prison) this summer and we’ve been working at it. There have been a lot of loose pieces; with security, working with the local church and diocesan staff.”
Before Mass, Bishop Ricken spoke to the inmates. He told them he was there to fulfill a wish of Pope Francis, during the Year of Mercy, to extend God’s mercy on all people.
“I come to you with a special mandate, a special directive that was given by Pope Francis,” Bishop Ricken told the inmates. “He asked every bishop in the world to reach out especially to people in prison and to bring to them the gift of the grace of a Year of Mercy.”
“It is my burning desire that, during this jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy,” wrote Pope Francis in 2015. Among the seven corporal works of mercy is to visit the imprisoned.
Bishop Ricken explained that Pope Francis wants everyone, “especially those in prison, … to be able to receive the graces of the Year of Mercy.” God’s mercy flows to anyone open to it, he said.
“You know, (God) knows each one of you, brothers, better than you know yourself. The Scriptures tell us he can count every hair on our head. God knows everything about you, the good and the bad, and it’s true about me as well. He knows about me inside and out.”
At the same time, said Bishop Ricken, “God is not interested in keeping score.”
“God is in the business of love and he wants to communicate to people desperately his tremendous love and mercy,” Bishop Ricken told the men, all dressed in green prison uniforms. “Nobody has done anything so bad that God will not forgive. But it’s a matter of having the humility to approach Jesus and ask for forgiveness, to ask him for mercy for you and to place your sins — and me too, I have to do this all of the time — before the Lord and ask for his mercy and forgiveness.”
While God is like “an ocean of mercy,” said Bishop Ricken, mercy can only be given if people accept it.
“So Jesus is asking us to receive that mercy and enter into a relationship with our Lord. He wants you to be his friend and I’m here to ask you to let him into your heart and into your mind,” said Bishop Ricken. “Jesus will never let you down. He’s always dependable. He’s always right here for you.”
According to Bishop Ricken, all bishops were asked to use a prayer and blessing written by Pope Francis and share it with inmates. The bishop read the prayer at the end of Mass.
He also urged them to study the word of God in the Bible and be open to its message. “As you start to grow in your relationship with our Lord, something happens inside,” he said. Hardened hearts are softened and a desire to share God’s love with others begins.
“This gift is for you. … Jesus is here for you. He’s filled with mercy. No matter what you’ve done, it’s not too bad to be forgiven by our Lord,” said Bishop Ricken.
Four inmates assisted in the liturgy. Kenneth Crass played the keyboard, Michael Daniel and Thomas Kopp served as readers and Greg Shookman served as a greeter.
Before reciting a final prayer and blessing, Bishop Ricken blessed rosaries that some inmates brought with them.
As the men exited the gymnasium at the end of Mass, they shook hands and shared a few words with Bishop Ricken and the other ministers and volunteers.
Bishop Ricken, who visits inmates at the prisons in Green Bay and Oshkosh each year at Lent and Advent, told The Compass that spending time with the Redgranite inmates was moving.
“They really appreciate that the priests and the deacons and lay ministers come to care for them, give them pastoral care,” he said. “They are just so grateful and they really pay attention during Mass.”
Armbrust said the men were also moved. “Some shed tears. One man was still crying going through the reception line after Mass,” she said.
Bishop Ricken said he is thankful to Pope Francis for offering an opportunity for the church to share God’s mercy with all people, including those on the fringes of society.
“This Year of Mercy has been so beautiful and especially to offer that love of God, through Pope Francis,” he said. “To be able to do that in his name has been a great privilege for me.”
View more photos from the Mass at Redgranite Correctional Institution at this link.