Cardinal participates in service at RCI

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Every year, Bishop Mitchell Rozanski visits the Maryland state prison complex south of Hagerstown to administer the sacrament of Confirmation to those accepting full communion in the Catholic Church, said Chaplain Bob Lashinsky, who ministers at the complex.

Lashinsky said that about two weeks ago, he thought about what an honor it would be if Cardinal William Keeler visited. He e-mailed the cardinal’s secretary, saying the cardinal would be welcome to come to Hagerstown and participate in Mass, said Lashinsky, adding he thought he might hear something back in a couple of weeks.

“The next day, I got a response,” Lashinsky said.

Keeler presided over Sunday’s Mass in the chapel at Roxbury Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison that houses about 1,700 inmates.

Approximately 28 inmates, as well as some staff and staff family members, sat in gray or tan plastic chairs during the Mass. The prison has about 108 Roman Catholic inmates, according to a news release.

To attend the Mass, inmates had to be registered as Roman Catholics and couldn’t be restricted to their cells for disciplinary reasons, said Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Lashinsky said his parishioners at RCI were “ecstatic” when they learned Keeler was coming. Keeler, 79, is the most senior cardinal in the nation, Lashinsky said. At age 75, it’s mandatory that cardinals retire, he said.

Lashinsky said, as far as he knew, it was the first time Keeler or any cardinal had visited the state prison.

“I get many invitations to say Masses, but this was a very special one because it was in a prison,” Keeler said after Mass.

“The people at the Mass are closed in. They can’t go freely where they want to go, so I want to bring the Mass to them, bring the liturgy to them,” said Keeler, archbishop emeritus of Baltimore.

Keeler said he’d been to a prison when he served in the Harrisburg, Pa., diocese and believed he visited a correctional facility in Anne Arundel County, Md.

Keeler made a two-hour trip from Timonium, Md., for the Mass in the prison complex on Sunday.

He prayed with the inmates and watched as they accepted wafers during Eucharist. At times he required assistance standing up during the service.M

Michael Paris, a transitional deacon from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Frederick County, Md., gave the sermon.

After the Mass, the cardinal returned to the chapel and thanked those in attendance for participating in the Eucharist, a Christian rite in which bread and wine are consecrated and distributed as symbols of Jesus’ body and blood.

Then the cardinal turned and pointed to an inmate wearing a Baltimore Ravens T-shirt.

“Is that good or bad, cardinal?” Lashinsky asked.

“That’s, good,” Keeler said.

Then inmates lined up for an opportunity to get their photo taken with Keeler, shake or kiss his hand, and share a few words with him.

“He’s a cardinal and there’s only 200 cardinals in the world,” said inmate Robert Wilson. “He could have been a pope.”

Wilson said Keeler’s presence made him “feel closer to God” and gave him a clearer conscience.

“He’s so kind and so compassionate that he, in my mind, he is the closest thing to God in the United States,” said Wilson, 70, from Massachusetts.

“By me talking to him, I just feel good. I touch his hand and I feel good,” Wilson said.

Inmate Gregory Keplinger, from Baltimore County, said it was fantastic that Keeler came to Mass.

Keplinger, who has family in the Williamsport area, said he thought it said a lot about RCI’s administration, congregation and “what little violence” the prison has had recently that Keeler would come to the Mass.

“It was a great honor for me,” said Keplinger, 51.

Inmate Richard DeBlois, originally from Baltimore, said the Mass was unique.

DeBlois said he returned to Catholicism after a long absence.

“When I was a kid, I was Catholic and I got away from it,” DeBlois said.

DeBlois said he believed he ended up in prison because he walked away from God.

“I just gave up on everything and I went the wrong way,” DeBlois said.

DeBlois said he was “shocked” that Keeler came to the service, which DeBlois described as a “little above regular.”