Meet Keith. Age: 35. Average build. Average height. Average weight. What is not average about Keith? His place of residence. For nearly half of his 35 years, Keith has resided in prison.
Now meet Father Jim Bracke, a Congregation of Holy Cross priest. Ordination: 36 years ago. Occupation: Chaplain at the University of Notre Dame. One of his ministries: bringing Christ and the sacraments to the incarcerated.
When Father Jim and Keith met, Keith was “a tough nut to crack,” as Father Jim described. A self-pronounced narcissist, Keith was not exactly focused on really anyone other than himself, and he repeatedly declared himself an atheist. Nonetheless, Father Jim visited Keith on a regular basis.
On one visit, Keith asked how Father Jim was doing. Usually self-absorbed, this was unusual for Keith. Father Jim shared that he was dealing with some family members and their health issues. Keith responded, “Well, let’s offer a prayer for them.”
“He prayed one of the most touching prayers that I had heard in ministry anywhere,” Father Jim said. “Keith had said he was an atheist, and yet he seemed to pray to our loving God, in Jesus and with the Spirit. I will never forget that blessed encounter at Westville.”
Keith is just one of the many individuals Father Jim has touched and been touched by. Father Jim’s prison ministry began nearly seven years ago, over a dinner with Father Tom McNally, CSC. “I felt after the visit with Father Tom that there was a need, and in prayer I felt the Gospel of Matthew 25, challenging me to go beyond myself and comfort zones. I then went with Father Tom to the county jail for Mass” and the rest is history.
Father Jim offers the sacrament of the Mass at the St. Joseph County Jail on a monthly basis. On Tuesday mornings, he visits the men he has come to know through offering Mass. He also visits other area prisons, such as Westville Correctional Facility.
Father Jim also works with those re-entering society, including at Dismas House — a place that, since 1986, has been home to over 1,000 men and women re-entering from incarceration.
“Those in re-entry face in some ways more challenges than those in prison,” he said. They often have a hard time finding a place to live, work and do the things one needs to live in society. Society seems to continue to mark a big ‘X’ on their lives, even though they have paid for their crimes.”
At Mass Father Jim prays with a team of volunteers, including Deacon Greg Gehred, the St. Joseph County Prison Ministry director; Jeffrey Blue; two University of Notre Dame masters of divinity students and parish volunteers.
“The volunteers help on the Saturday morning Bible study programs, meet one-on-one with the men prior to Mass, bring printed religious materials to the men — including Bibles, connect to the families of the men and help plan the Mass with readers and music,” he said.
Prison ministry is not without its challenges. Father Jim wishes more men could come to Mass rather than the usual 20. He also regrets that he is unable to celebrate Mass for women.
When he visits the men, he is separated by a glass window or forced to speak through a phone, rather than visiting them in their pods. His time to visit is limited to an hour or so.
Prison ministry, he said, is about meeting his brothers in Christ, seeing “in the faces of the assembly the same ones I saw at Little Flower, St. Bavo or Christ the King: brothers who are sons of God and brothers in Christ.”
He continued: “As I come to know them, I hear stories like ones I hear in parishes: that they come from families; have hopes and dreams for wives, sons and daughters; are concerned about their parents and are wanting to work and support their loved ones. I hear and see men who love God and want to serve God and their neighbors. Many come from broken homes or got into the wrong crowd, leading to bad choices. They are willing to complete the jail terms and do not deny they made errors. I am humbled by their desire to change their lives in Christ.”
In the Constitutions of the Congregation of Holy Cross, article two states: “As disciples of Jesus, we stand side by side with all people. Like them, we are burdened by the same struggles and beset by the same weaknesses; like them, we are made new by the same Lord’s love; like them, we hope for a world where justice and love prevail.” This mission is brought to life in the prison ministry of Father Jim.
“I am better as a human and priest, in meeting my brothers in Christ. They call me to grow in my faith and trust in God. I would hope that others might give this ministry a try and discover that God’s amazing graces are real.”
Become involved in jail ministry in any county, visit www.diocesefwsb.org/jail-ministry
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