I’d like to share with you a story of Christmas generosity and sacrifice. In my humble opinion, the hand of God is firmly in control of these events.
It is always with a certain amount of trepidation that I make requests for contributions, having been raised in a family where fierce independence was among the most important of values. Nonetheless, as a Catholic deacon, I have seen magnitudes of need that are far beyond my personal means to solve. The needs of families of prisoners to whom I minister, during the Christmas season, are well beyond that threshold, but I nonetheless felt the need to swallow my pride and reluctance and ask.
I am blessed to serve at a parish of great generosity. Nevertheless, if there were any doubt in my mind about this, their response to my Christmas appeal put any doubt to rest. In fact, their generosity was so touching that an “angel” associated with the St. Vincent DePaul Justice Initiative, the organization responsible for the volunteers serving the prisoners, decided to match their contributions dollar for dollar! That generous response made it possible for us to give a Christ-centered Christmas to more than 2 dozen families. I’m certain that the vast majority of these families will never forget the packages they received. I say this from a certain amount of personal experience. Many years ago, a Catholic family reached out to my family during a particularly rough period. They saw that we had everything we needed to make our holiday the best that it could be, and even though I haven’t seen those people in many years, I have never forgotten what they did. At one point, I tried to pay them back for their kindness. They wouldn’t hear of it! I am personally and tremendously grateful for those who have enabled me to instead, “Pay it forward.” I feel certain that at least some of the families that we help will in fact reach out to others, and sooner, rather than later.
There is a post script to this story. As most of you who are reading this are aware, the prayers of the Mass have changed significantly, beginning on the First Sunday of Advent. As a result, a new Sacramentary (the book containing the prayers of the Mass prayed by the priest) is needed for all celebrations of Liturgy. We needed a new Sacramentary for Communion Services and Masses at the prison. As some of you may know, these books are very expensive. The smallest and least ornate cost hundreds of dollars, the most ornate, many times more.
It seemed a given that prisoners, who typically earn between 75 cents and a dollar an hour, and are not permitted to have significantly more, even if a relative is willing to provide more, would not be able to afford such a book. I approached a benefactor, with whom I have done a many thousands of dollars of business over many years, and asked if he would donate the funds to purchase the book that our priest volunteer had requested, the “deluxe” edition, if you will. He agreed.
I carried the book into the prison that I visit regularly, a few days later, to use for Mass. Imagine my surprise when I saw a New Roman Missal, already set up, on the altar. I asked the Worship Leader, an inmate who is serving an extremely long sentence, effectively though not officially, a life sentence, where the new Sacramentary came from. He replied that there are many inmates in the facility who owe him many favors. He cashed them all in to buy the book. In essence, he spent something in excess of six months’ prison wages so that we could have a proper Sacramentary for proper worship services.
I could hardly look such a “gift horse” in the mouth. I thanked him profusely, and carried our book back out. With my pastor’s permission, I executed a trade. I gave the Missal intended for my facility to my parish in exchange for the one that had been on our altar. That Missal has now gone to the Medium Security facility for women, equivalent to the one for men that I visit. Christ can now be preached to hundreds more so that they can change their lives.
Indeed, this has been a blessed Christmas, with generosity multiplied many times. I have expressed my thanks to the congregation, but wanted to also memorialize it here. Jesus told us, “Whatever you do for the least of My brethren, you do for Me.” (Matthew 25:40) Truly, one can argue that my “other” flock truly fits the description, “least of My brethren.” A devoted flock answered this call of Christ to honor the occasion of His birth. May their generosity be returned to them a hundred fold, and may their spirit inspire others.
Have a blessed and happy New Year.