Prisoners — especially those in maximum-security for committing terrible crimes — are the most forgotten members of society. We mistakenly assume that they have nothing to offer. Twelve Catholic inmates in Missouri showed that prisoners do, indeed, contribute something fruitful to the world.
Fr. Phil Luebbert — dressed in his vestments ready to celebrate Mass — stood before the prisoners at Crossroads Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison in Cameron, Missouri. He said, “Men, I have bad news: there is a young man who had such a bad car accident that there is virtually no hope for his survival. I know you guys pray hard, so I want us to offer this Mass for him.”
Only moments before, the deacon — who doesn’t serve at the same parish as Fr. Luebbert —confided to the priest, with a heavy heart, that a teen in his church had been in a terrible accident. Fr. Luebbert could see the pain in the deacon’s eyes. “The boy’s family has given up hope that he will live,” he told the priest. “His family has already begun to make funeral arrangements.”
Fr. Luebbert remembers, “I felt the sadness, too.”
Priest at 60
Most Wednesday evenings, Fr. Luebbert says Mass at the Crossroads Correctional Center —something that never would have been possible if he not persevered in becoming a priest. In 2006, at the age of 60, he was ordained. When he got his parish assignment in Missouri, he committed to continuing the prison ministry started by his predecessor. In 1999, before becoming a priest, Fr. Luebbert worked as a correctional officer for a year. This experience impressed upon him the dire need prisoners have for the spiritual life, particularly the spiritual need of Catholic inmates for the sacraments.
Praying with prisoners
Fr. Luebbert, looking out at the 12 men clad in gray, said, “Please offer up your finest prayers and ask the Lord Jesus to please help this young man to have a chance to recover.”
The prisoners all nodded yes to Father’s request.
In a windowless, gray and white room, Fr. Luebbert continued with the Mass as usual.
“After Holy Communion, each man knelt down, leaned over his fold-up chair, put his hands over his face, and prayed in silence for several minutes,” Fr. Luebbert recalls. “There was such a powerful, good feeling in the prison worship room.”
To the priest, those 12 inmates present that night were a reminder of the Twelve Apostles. He felt in his heart, “The Lord had heard the men’s plea, it pleased him, and that there was going to be a good result.”
We don’t usually think of a prisoner’s prayers as being efficacious. Without thinking, we assume that God doesn’t hear them because of their terrible deeds. We forget about God’s mercy and the transformative power of sacraments of confession and the Eucharist.
We also forget that God listens intently to the prayers of the suffering, and there’s no doubt that most prisoners suffer immensely. Their suffering is valuable when it’s united to Christ’s suffering.
“This concept is called “redemptive suffering” since it’s united to Christ’s efficacious suffering. Therefore, those who suffer and pray have more potent prayers,” he says.
The following week
To a skeptic, it’s impossible to measure prayer. To believers, we know it works — though not always in expected ways or on a timetable.
The following week when Fr. Luebbert went to celebrate Mass at the prison, the deacon met him with good news. Previously, the injured teen was near death. Now his condition had taken an unexpected turn for the better. Doctors thought there was a remote chance the young man would live.
Each week Fr. Luebbert and the inmates continued to pray for the patient, and every week they kept hearing how his prognosis continued to improve. “Eventually the deacon told us that the young man would take therapy to walk again. Understandingly, the young man would probably always have a few lasting effects of the accident, but he had made a nearly complete recovery.”
It’s easy to imagine the joy and satisfaction those inmates felt knowing that their prayers played a part in the injured student’s recovery.
Fr. Luebbert believes that a miracle happened. “Jesus heard the heartfelt prayers of the men at a maximum-security prison Mass,” he says. “This was one of the most powerful and wonderful experiences of my priesthood and of my life in general.”