Chicago cardinal visits Cook County Jail for Christmas Mass

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Since 2014, when he was installed as Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich has celebrated Christmas Mass for individuals in custody at Cook County Jail — except in 2020 because of the pandemic.

More than 60 men from the jail’s Division 11, donned in beige and wearing blue surgical face masks, listened attentively as Cupich led them in prayer Sunday morning. After the second reading, in Spanish, Cupich spoke.

“Society should never treat people as though they can judge their whole life because of the things that they’ve done wrong. And nor should you have that judgment about your life, or anyone else,” Cupich told the inmates. “There’s more to us, there’s goodness in each one of us, that sometimes is overshadowed by the mistakes we make. Christmas is a time to remember those good qualities in our lives.”

Cupich had visited Lurie Children’s Hospital on Saturday to pray and talk with patients and their families who couldn’t be home for the holidays. During this visit, he said, he came to a realization.

Deacon Pablo Perez gives out communion to an incarcerated individual during morning Christmas Mass at Cook County Jail Sunday, where Cardinal Blase Cupich gave a homily.
Deacon Tim McCormick gives out communion to an incarcerated individual during Christmas mass at the Cook County Jail Sunday morning.

A father — who wasn’t Catholic — asked Cupich to pray with his daughter. Then the man asked Cupich if he knew why he’d invited him over to pray. Cupich said he didn’t know.

“Whenever someone visits a child, it’s a blessing. I wanted to give you this blessing,” the father told him, Cupich said.

“So what I want to tell you today, is that coming here is not something that I’m doing for you. But you are a reminder to me that the difference between humanity is not that great, that all of us fail,” Cupich told the inmates.

A chorus of “Merry Christmas” from attendees marked the end of Cupich’s homily. During the sign of peace, inmates patted each other on the back and shared fist bumps. Violin notes led the Communion song, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

“By being here with them, they offer me something and a reminder that, let’s face it, if our circumstances were different in life, we probably wouldn’t be too much different from the folks who are here. And so to let them know that they’re part of humanity,” Cupich told the Tribune.

After Christmas Mass, Cupich was slated to have lunch with a few inmates who are part of a program called “Recipe for Change,” which provides Cook County Jail inmates with culinary instruction, job skills training and mentorship in order to prepare them for employment upon reentry to society.

But Chef Bruno Abate — the program’s founder — was sick and the event had to be canceled. So the cardinal’s plans changed.

“I’m gonna go home and take a nap because I had Midnight Mass” at Holy Name Cathedral, Cupich said. “I got to bed around two o’clock and got up at seven. So I probably need a little more sleep.”

In red shirts, chaplains from Kolbe House also participated in the Christmas Mass. Kolbe House is the Archdiocese of Chicago’s jail ministry of “compassion and presence” for those affected by incarceration.

Incarcerated individuals read a prayer during morning Christmas mass at Cook County Jail on Sunday.
Cardinal Blase Cupich holds up bread for communion during morning Christmas Mass at Cook County Jail Sunday.

“There needs to be a way forward of healing and hope and reconciliation with the community and restoration, so that they can be the good people that they’re called to be, the good citizens that many want to be. So our our mission is to accompany people on that journey,” said MaryClare Birmingham, executive director of Kolbe House.

Birmingham echoed Cupich’s sentiment that mistakes don’t define people. “Every person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” she said.

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