More than 30 inmates at Auburn Correctional Facility spent several days in late September talking about their faith with Deacon John Tomandl and a team of volunteers. These inmates were participating in Residents Encounter Christ, a three-day retreat held each year at the maximum-security facility, where Deacon Tomandl has been chaplain for the past 14 years.
"The idea (behind the retreat) is to take a man who may or may not have a deep walk with Christ right now, introduce him to Christ in a way he may not have been exposed to before or thought about before, and try to kindle into a flame the spark that is in him," Deacon Tomandl explained.
The first day of the retreat, which was held Sept. 20-22, featured talks and sharing sessions focused on reconciliation, and after listening to several talks and participating in sharing sessions, inmates had the opportunity for individual confession with several visiting priests. The next day's talks and activities focused on the Eucharist and sacramental celebrations, and on the third and final day, participating inmates talked about evangelization and learned how to use their faith as an example and invitation to others, Deacon Tomandl said.
"The retreat always closes with a Mass and what we call a sending forth," he added. "The men are prayed over individually, then they're sent off to live for the next year a little closer to Christ."
Residents Encounter Christ retreats are held at prisons around the country and have been taking place at Auburn Correctional Facility since 1975, Deacon Tomandl added. Many prisons hold these retreats on weekends, but the Auburn facility has been holding them on weekdays for the last 10 years due to the increased overtime costs and security concerns associated with holding the retreats on weekends, he said. Moving the retreats to weekdays caused volunteer participation to decrease by approximately 50 percent but also had an unexpected silver lining, he added.
"It's caused insiders -- the residents themselves who've attended previous (retreats), whose walk with Christ may be a little deeper, a little more sincere -- to step up and take the place of those volunteers who aren't coming in anymore. In a lot of ways it's been a blessing," Deacon Tomandl said.
Although fewer volunteers have been coming into the prison to staff the retreat in recent years, quite a few Catholics work behind the scenes to make the retreat a success, he noted. Some write anonymous letters to the inmates to encourage them on their faith journeys, while a number of others include the retreat in their daily prayer intentions.
Regardless of the ways they choose to participate, most volunteers become involved with Residents Encounter Christ because they want to make a difference in the inmates' lives and share with the inmates the faith and hope they've felt in their own lives, Deacon Tomandl said.
"As Christians we're automatically called by Christ to turn the other cheek, to look for the best in humanity and to share the love we've felt with others, without exception. It doesn't matter whether the guy is rich or poor, in prison or in the street, educated or uneducatable," he said.
Pope Francis has specifically called Catholics to carry out the corporal works of mercy -- including visiting the imprisoned -- during the Holy Year of Mercy, which began in December 2015 and will conclude Nov. 20. The pope also has declared that passing through the Holy Doors of Mercy in Rome or in dioceses throughout the world will offer Catholics the possibility of obtaining a plenary indulgence -- or remission of temporal punishment deserved for sins -- if they also receive the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist, pray for Pope Francis and his intentions, and pray the Profession of the Faith. Prison inmates obviously are not able to make pilgrimages to the Holy Doors of Mercy, yet Pope Francis has said they still will be eligible to receive the indulgence.
"May the gesture of directing their thought and prayer to the Father each time they cross the threshold of their cell signify for them their passage through the Holy Door, because the mercy of God is able to transform hearts, and is also able to transform bars into an experience of freedom," Pope Francis wrote in a September 2015 letter about the plenary indulgence.