Cardinal Blase Cupich reminds inmates at Cook County Jail that they are not forgotten

The cardinal celebrates Christmas Day Mass at the lockup with a message of hope, “We should never allow our lives to be reduced or have anybody reduce our life to the mistakes we make,” he says.

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Cardinal Blasé Cupich enters the chapel to start the Christmas Day Mass at Cook County Jail. “You are a reminder to me that the difference between humanity is not that great, that all of us fail,” the cardinal told inmates.

Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

Inmates at the Cook County Jail attended a special Mass on Sunday morning led by Cardinal Blase Cupich, who reminded the men there is “goodness in each one of us” and that they are “not forgotten” on Christmas Day.

“Yes, you are away from your families. And maybe you think today that you’ve been forgotten, overlooked, disrespected,” Cupich said. “But that’s precisely why I come here today. We should never allow our lives to be reduced or have anybody reduce our life to the mistakes we make.”

The Mass, attended by more than 50 inmates incarcerated while awaiting trial, is held every year on Christmas Day to deliver hope and restore a sense of community to the men held at the jail during the holiday season. The cardinal, who has been speaking at the annual event since 2014, said he only broke his streak during the pandemic in 2020.

“Christmas is a time to remember those good qualities in our lives,” Cupich said. “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.”

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Cook County Jail inmates follow prayers during the Mass. About 50 inmates attended, as did police officers, deputies and members of Kolbe House Jail Ministry, a branch of the archdiocese.

Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

Inmates at the Mass were joined by members of the church, police officers and deputies at the jail and members of the Kolbe House Jail Ministry, an offshoot of the Archdiocese of Chicago that serves people affected by the criminal justice system.

“We all suffer from the loss of community,” said MaryClare Birmingham, the executive director of Kolbe House Jail Ministry. “We want [the inmates] to eventually rejoin the community and to be healed when they do.”

The experience of incarceration often leads to feelings of isolation and disconnect during their time in jail — which can last anywhere from a few hours to over a decade in the state of Illinois, she said.

“In the jail there’s no certain end point. For some, the years just go by,” she said.

Some men spend more time in jail awaiting trial than they do in prison for their actual sentence, she said.

In addition to gathering at the jail on Christmas Day, volunteers of the Kolbe House Jail Ministry visit the inmates each week to build faith and help with personal development, Birmingham said.

Volunteers with the ministry have been visiting inmates and attending Mass on Christmas Day for decades, she said.

The inmates often tell volunteer ministers that their presence reminds them they are human beings despite any past wrongdoings, she said. Some admit to their failings, she added, and some share their anguish and say they are wrongly accused.

Either way, the inmates will spend the holidays behind bars and they “need hope as much as we all need hope,” Birmingham said.

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Cardinal Blase Cupich and Deacon Tim McCormick shake hands with inmates after Mass. Inmates thanked members of the clergy for the visit and message of hope.

Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

The Mass, catering to all faiths, included a volunteer choir, accompanied by a violin, that sang a number of songs such as “O Holy Night” and “Gloria.”

As the Mass came to an end, inmates slowly left the room, shaking hands with members of the church and volunteers. They expressed gratitude for the visit and wished them a merry Christmas.

For many of the inmates, said the members of the ministry, hearing the cheerful tune of “Feliz Navidad” was their favorite part of the Christmas Mass.

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