Austin bishop celebrates special Mass in Texas prison for female death row inmates

Bishop Joe Vasquez of the Diocese of Austin celebrates Mass in the Mountain View Unit prison in Gatesville, Texas, which houses the state's female death row, on Dec. 1, 2023. (Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition/TDCJ Communications)

AUSTIN, Texas (CNA) — Bishop Joe Vasquez of the Diocese of Austin celebrated Mass on Friday at the prison housing Texas’ seven female death row inmates, five of whom have converted to Catholicism during their time awaiting execution.

The Mass, which took place at the Mountain View Unit prison in Gatesville, Texas, was part of a three-day conference on prison ministry put on by the Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition (CPMC), a group that began as a project of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains.

In his homily before the women in the prison, preaching on Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, Vasquez reflected on the son’s betrayal of his father’s love, his repentance, and the unexpected, overwhelming forgiveness and celebration of the son by his father.

He emphasized the mercy of God in calling sinners back into his family, no matter what they may have done in the past.

“You belong to the Church just as much as anybody else. The walls may separate us, but the walls can never keep Christ down,” Vasquez said to the women.

“There’s a lot of things we can’t do for you, but we can be present, we can accompany. We want to keep on bringing the message of hope.”

Karen Clifton, CPMC’s executive coordinator, told CNA that the group’s goal is to provide a baseline of formation for Catholics wanting to minister to the incarcerated, responding to a lack of resources to train Catholics to do prison ministry in many dioceses across the country.

Clifton had previously ministered to several of the women on Texas death row — many of whom have been there for decades — back in the 1990s. Over the course of those decades, she said, five of the women converted to Catholicism, thanks in large part to the efforts of Deacon Ronnie Lastovica, the Diocese of Austin’s pastoral care coordinator for the region where the prison is located.

In addition, Clifton said, six of the current prisoners are lay oblates with the Sisters of Mary Morning Star, a Catholic order of nuns located near Waco that has made ministry to the women on death row part of their mission as religious sisters. Clifton said all six of those women have committed to praying for the same intentions as the sisters, viewing their incarcerated state as something akin to a “monastic life.”

Clifton said she believes at least two of the women on death row would “almost certainly” join the order officially as nuns if they were released.

“​​I’ve seen the transformation of these women, having met them in the ’90s and then seeing them now. These are prayerful women … their prayer life is so deep. Just being in the units and seeing the transformation … they’re participating in [the nuns’] charism and in their prayer,” Clifton said.

In his homily, Vasquez further reflected on the importance of Catholics practicing the corporal works of mercy.

“This ministry of being with prisoners and accompanying them is so important. It’s one of the essential things … Christ is going to ask on the last day, ‘Were you there? Did you visit me?’ That’s what we’re going to be judged on,” he concluded.

“He didn’t even say how many times you’ve gone to church, how many times did we pray. How did you take care of the other person? Did you give some water to the thirsty? Did you clothe the naked? Did you visit the sick? Did you come and visit those in prison?’” he said.

Texas has carried out nearly 600 state executions and six federal executions since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. According to the same group, Texas has executed more women — six — than any other.

None of the women on Texas’ death row currently have scheduled execution dates.


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