COLORADO SPRINGS. Over the past two decades, Deacon Pat Bidon has probably spent more time at the El Paso County Jail than many career criminals. And he is not planning a “jail break” anytime soon.
Deacon Bidon, who recently stepped down as director of the diocesan office of prison and jail ministry, still visits the jail several times a week to offer Communion services, teach classes, and meet one-on-one with inmates who are preparing to receive the sacrament of confirmation.
“For me, one of the guiding principles has been a statement of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick: ‘Nobody is as bad as their worst mistake,’” Deacon Bidon said. “When you affirm their goodness, they’re very appreciative. In many cases, you’re the first person who has accepted them and let them tell their story.”
The jail where Deacon Bidon ministers is a pre-trial and pre-sentencing facility. He said that he has never felt he was in danger while visiting the jail, and he thinks that most of the people he meets are “good, honest folks that have made a mistake.”
Deacon Bidon said that he got involved in jail ministry almost by accident — stepping in for a fellow deacon who was seriously ill and could not make his regularly scheduled visits.
But he soon fell in love with the work and said he has benefited from it as much as those to whom he ministers.
One of Deacon Bidon’s most rewarding moments is when he is able to arrange for a priest to come to the jail and hear confessions, he said.
“Many of them say, ‘I haven’t been to confession in 15 years. I feel like this big heavy weight that I didn’t even know was there has been lifted.’”
The Jubilee Year of Mercy, which began Dec. 8, 2015 and will end on Nov. 20, has been a good opportunity for Deacon Bidon to spread his message of God’s forgiveness. Using a meditation written by Irish Archbishop Eamon Martin on seven modern-day sorrows of Mary, Deacon Bidon composed a daily prayer for the Jubilee Year that he has been distributing it during his visits to the jail. (See below)
“It’s been a great instrument for the Year of Mercy,” Deacon Bidon said. “One man sent me a letter and said, ‘Please keep me in prayer. I can’t tell you how much (the prayer that you wrote) meant to me.”
Deacon Cliff Donnelly, who was ordained to the permanent diaconate by Bishop Michael Sheridan along with 13 other men on June 11, is stepping into the role of director of jail and prison ministry. He said that he hopes to build on the model established by Deacon Bidon to minister to Catholics in other correctional facilities located in the diocese, such as the Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Facility.
“A lot of the prisons understand that if you can have people in the prison find faith, they’re better prisoners,” Deacon Donnelly said. “They behave better within the system, they get out earlier and they stay out. They know it’s part of the rehabilitation.”
“Jail and prison ministry is what I believe led me to the diaconate in general,” said Deacon Donnelly, who is currently assigned to Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. “I also speak Spanish, and there is a need in our jails and prisons to bring the Blessed Sacrament to those who don’t speak English. Some of the most moving moments I’ve had in formation have been delivering communion to the Spanish-speaking population.”
Javier Cervantes, director of the diocesan Office of Hispanic Ministry, is currently in the process of becoming certified to make regular visits to the El Paso County Jail for the purpose of conducting activities for Spanish-speaking inmates.
“My first few experiences have been very positive,” he said. “They are very friendly and happy to see me. They need to hear the Word of God and they are hungry to have that. I can see hope in those individuals, and it motivates me to do more and to continue this ministry.”
Cervantes said that the Jubilee Year of Mercy was a big factor in his decision to get involved in jail ministry.
“Pope Francis tells us to reach our brothers and sisters where they are,” Cervantes said. “I asked myself, ‘Where are those brothers and sisters who used to be in our pews? What happened to them?’”
“For us, who are outside of jail, we are free to go to Mass whenever we want,” Cervantes said. “That’s not the case for our brothers and sisters who are in jail.”
In addition to the communion services offered weekly at the jail, Cervantes said that once he is certified he hopes to offer a Bible study or catechism classes.
Another correctional facility located within the boundaries of the Diocese of Colorado Springs is the Buena Vista Correctional Complex. Deacon Roger Metzinger of St. Rose of Lima Parish was recruited by Deacon Bidon to get involved in jail ministry. He has been working to make the sacraments more available to Catholic inmates in Buena Vista, and he agreed that there is a critical need for people who speak Spanish to minister in prisons.
“There’s a large Hispanic population (at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex),” he said. “We need Spanish-speaking priests and deacons.”
Deacon Metzinger, with help from roughly 40 volunteers working both inside and outside the prison, recently conducted a Kairos retreat from Sept. 29-Oct. 2. Volunteers came from as far away as Texas and Missouri. Forty-two male inmates participated.
Kairos is a nationwide retreat ministry that is based on the Cursillo movement and is specifically designed to be implemented in jails and prisons. It is nondenominational and aims to foster a conversion experience among those who are incarcerated. Deacon Metzinger said he thinks it achieved its goal.
“A lot of people said it was one of the best Kairos retreats they had seen,” he said. “The expectations were exceeded beyond imagination. Our target is to have a Kairos weekend every six months.”
One retreat participant stuck out in his mind, Deacon Metzinger said.
“He was somewhat reclusive, holding back, almost bowing out,” Deacon Metzinger said. “The poor man had a lot of family problems. Each time I spoke with him, he told me he might not come back for the rest of the retreat. But at the closing program, he was there and thanked everyone.”