“Hey, what’s going on down there?” came from above on Christmas morning.

The query rose above shouts, whistles and catcalls: “The (vulgarity) pope is here!”

Then Archbishop José H. Gomez started walking down narrow cellblock 3100B.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, Captain Joseph Dempsey, who runs the 4,000-inmate facility, senior chaplain Patty Bartlett, plus a dozen deputies with TV cameramen and reporters in tow, accompanied the archbishop. Inside the noise level dropped a decibel or two.

“Merry Christmas. Here’s a little gift,” the archbishop said, reaching through a rectangular opening in the chipped green bars. He handed a tattooed-from-the-waist inmate wearing only boxer shorts paperback copies of “Jesus the Risen Prisoner” and “Walking with Joy with Pope Francis.”

Most in the high security block were already at the front of their cramped quarters as Archbishop Gomez approached each cell. Almost all wished him a “Merry Christmas.”

Moving on to 3100A, stopping at cell 25, its inmate asked for an autograph, which the prelate provided. The young guy in cell 22 had decorated his bars with multi-colored stars. The man in cell 20 had a scraggly black beard and was wearing a white skull cap. He was reading in his bunk, but came to the bars to say thanks and bow.

Cell 19 was all decked out in milk and juice cartons. The tall inmate’s eyes welled up when the archbishop handed him the books. Gripping the green bars, he moaned, “I want to get out of here.” After listening for a couple minutes, Archbishop Gomez patted his hands before leaving the cell block.

In a wider hallway, a reporter asked how his Christmas visit to Men’s Central Jail was part of “The Year of Mercy” declared by the pope.

“This is a joy to come celebrate Christmas Mass and visit the jail,” he said. “It’s bringing the love of God to people this special year. And I think that’s what Pope Francis said, you know, to reach out especially to people in need. So I think it is important that we open our hearts to those people and show them that we know them.”

The Christmas message

Earlier on Christmas morning, the archbishop had celebrated Mass for a larger group of inmates, ranging from higher-to-lower-security prisoners in Men’s Central Jail’s white-walled chapel, with its humble altar and plain cross behind it. There were no stone-glass windows or other significant adornments. Utilitarian at best, stark at worst.

L.A. County deputies in their khaki-and-forest-green uniforms stood during the liturgy. And they were there before, while the regular weekly choir from St. Agatha Church led the locked-up congregation singing Christmas carols like “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World.” Inmates in mostly light green and dark blue loose jump suits followed the Scripture readings in the “Together for Worship” handout. 

Sheriff McDonnell sat right there in the first row. And he was the first to receive Communion.

In his bilingual homily, Archbishop Gomez stressed God’s love for humankind and God’s actual delight in forgiving sinners. “That’s the Christmas message — that God never abandons us,” he said. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not our sins. Not our weaknesses. God comes as a little baby to show us his mercy and forgiveness. He came into the universe, all powerful, all new, because he cares about me.

“So we should think of that, and in the Catholic Church we’re celebrating the Year of Mercy. Pope Francis has called for us to reflect on mercy — God’s love for us and why we are called to love one another. Pope Francis says God never tires of forgiving us. He says, ‘God’s joy is in forgiving.’”

The archbishop then posed the question of how we accept that grace. How can we understand that God really cares for us no matter what?

“One thing I suggest to you, and that is to pray, to talk to God,” he pointed out. “And talk to Jesus as your brother. We need to learn from him. We need to be always thinking of others, being merciful, taking time with others. God through Jesus came for us,” the archbishop said before adding, “Never forget God is with us,” he said. “God loves us. God forgives us.”

‘It means a lot’         

After the Mass and the archbishop’s visit to a couple cellblocks, Sheriff McDonnell was asked why it was important to have a Christmas Mass, or regular liturgies during the year for that matter.

The Irish Catholic from Brookline Village outside Boston who graduated from St. Anselm College in New Hampshire had a ready reply. “I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for people to stay in touch with their faith,” he said. “That’s going to guide and help them through not only their time here, but also the transition back into society, getting back in a way that, hopefully, is more positive than they left.

“So for us to be able to have the archbishop come to share Christmas Mass with a relatively small number is very helpful. And I think the word goes out that we’re there to help support them for the time that they’re here — whether it’s addressing their faith needs or trying to be able to get them into education or whatever it is to make them leave here in a better condition than they came in.”

Sheriff McDonnell told The Tidings the archbishop’s annual visit, as previous archbishops had done, affected his deputies, too. “Well, I think it sends a message to everybody that we’re all human,” he said. “We all have the same interests, the same wants, the same desirers. So it shows that everybody’s human.”

Men’s Central Jail’s senior chaplain Patty Bartlett agreed. And she’s been working there since 2003 and in other Los Angeles County facilities since 1998.

“You know what? They feel very honored,” she said. “Because they see us regularly. I’m here five days a week fulltime. But for them to see that our Church cares enough for the archbishop to come on Christmas day to be with them, it means a lot. It means a lot.”