After the first group of 33 inmates filed into the chapel of LA Men’s Central Jail the morning of Dec. 25 came the first Christmas surprise: due to an unspecified “situation” at the jail that morning, they’d be the only ones at Mass with Archbishop José H. Gomez this year. 

Once the Mass began, queues from a female cantor and jail chaplain Father Paul Griesgraber told them when to stand. When it was time to sit, some of the inmates fidgeted in the scarred, creaky pews. Others closed their eyes in prayer. Most tried mouthing the Christmas carols in their printed booklets.

After hearing Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel, the day’s celebrant had little trouble keeping their attention.

“Christmas is the promise that God cares personally for each one of us, that he’ll never leave us alone,” began the archbishop during the homily.

The archbishop explained that God chose to come to the world as a baby, “so that he doesn’t frighten us.” This same Jesus wants to give us the strength and grace to “live our lives as a living Nativity scene,” he assured them, and all we have to do is ask for it.

Due to the pandemic, this was Archbishop Gomez’s first Christmas Mass at the jail since 2019. As witnesses from past years can attest, the day’s message gets across rather easily to this crowd.

Jail chaplain Steve Borja, an evangelical Christian with a background in counseling, was among those at the Mass. Even during the first months of COVID-19 he was allowed to walk the “tiers,” or cell rows, to visit inmates. His Catholic counterpart, Edgar Jimenez, later arrived to join him in the summer of 2020.  

“When we were coming in, they were actually surprised to see a chaplain,” recalled Borja. “It was a dark gray time inside the jail.”

Although different in their approaches to ministry, the pair found themselves in high demand during the pandemic. Jimenez said the inmates valued the in-person contact in a time of isolation.  

“I wasn’t afraid of reaching out and shaking their hands,” said Jimenez. “That right there, it means a lot to them, and to me as well.”

After the Mass, Archbishop Gomez was allowed to do the same. As in years past, he walked through two of the more restricted cell rows on the jail’s third floor. This time he handed out a prayer card with the words of Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego and a copy of “The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness” (Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, $27), the latest book by Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries.

Full story at Angelus News.