By William J. Dagendesh
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (OSV News) — Deacon candidates in the Diocese of Colorado Springs are creating two weekend retreats to offer to inmates in two Colorado state prisons for men to provide them an opportunity to share in the love and joy of knowing God and Catholicism.
One retreat will be June 23-25 at the Limon Correctional Facility (LCF) and the second one is planned for July 7-9 at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility (BVCF).
According to Deacon Cliff Donnelly, director of the diocese’s Prison and Jail Ministry, the current cohort of diaconate candidates scheduled for ordination in May 2024 are designing the retreats and will lead them.
“Much like a confirmation service project, this can be considered as a pre-ordination service project,” Deacon Donnelly said.
The retreats offer a second chance at hope, faith and redemption, he said, and he hopes the experience will inspire inmates to lay down their flags for Christ and embrace a Christian life.
According to Deacon Donnelly, the retreats will be limited to those Catholic offenders who have been regularly attending Catholic community activities within each facility.
“To our knowledge, this is the first Catholic-oriented retreat offered within either facility,” he told The Colorado Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper.
Two teams, each made up of five to seven deacon candidates, are primarily responsible for leading the retreats, with support from Deacon Donnelly and Deacon Russ Barrows with the Department of Corrections. Each team also will have a priest chaplain.
“The purpose of these retreats is to help develop the faith of Catholic offenders incarcerated within our diocese. Also, to expose future deacons to service on the periphery of society and the value of meeting people where they are,” Deacon Donnelly said.
Each retreat will bring together 20 to 25 men for Mass, prayer, group discussions, biblical reenactments, videos and testimony. Several hands-on exercises are being planned and role playing may be included.
The retreats will conclude with confessions, Mass and a barbecue. The retreats are free to offenders and an anonymous donor has covered food costs.
In a September 2019 article titled “How Adoration and Retreats Are Transforming Prisoners,” author Plinio Maria Solimeo wrote about the positive results of a similar program taking place in Texas.
“It is a striking testimony to the transformative power of the church’s ministry. The experimental program in Texas encouraged inmates to participate in religious retreats. Many of the participants were ‘very troublesome’ prisoners embroiled in constant conflicts. But the program’s beneficial effects were quickly confirmed by the prison authorities,” Solimeo wrote.
For many people, “troublesome” might be an understatement. Twenty years ago, BVCF buildings were referred to as “Gladiator School” because most of Colorado’s younger gang members were sent there. During that time the fighting and violence was at a record high.
BVCF, about 94 miles west of Colorado Springs, is part of a complex of three separate facilities. It houses 934 inmates “at the medium and close custody level,” according to the Colorado Department of Corrections.
LCF is in east-central Colorado about 75 miles northeast of Colorado Springs. It is a Level IV mixed-custody facility with a capacity of 930 prisoners. Inmates are housed in one of six general population living units which hold between 154 and 160 inmates.
Such numbers don’t deter Deacon Donnelly, who believes everyone is starved for Jesus.
“We are all working on our faith and this particular retreat will be focusing on four major biblical characters that have interesting pasts and more interesting conversions,” Deacon Donnelly said.
“The four characters are Jacob, King David, St. Peter, and St. Paul. We will trace the life of each of these great characters and discuss their flaws and their conversions.”
During the retreats, titled “Questionable Characters,” each offender is expected to conduct a deep dive on these four major biblical characters, understand their flaws, and understand their conversion and the great things that each man has accomplished, he said.
“The goal is for the offender to understand that none of these men had perfect lives, far from it, and that they found redemption through Christ. We hope that they (inmates) can see themselves in these biblical characters and that through them they too can find salvation and redemption,” the deacon added.
He also hopes these Catholic inmates can grow as a unit and have a wider impact on the facility itself.
“We will continue with our weekly Catholic Community meetings and may schedule another retreat next year or repeat this retreat for other offenders. The goal is for these men to see the crimes that they’ve committed as behind them, that their future is in front of them and that Christ can be their path to both a better life on earth and eternal salvation,” Deacon Donnelly said.
William J. Dagendesh writes for The Colorado Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Colorado Springs.