Q — I am a priest serving the inmates in the Salem area and the problem is that our “Catholic” services are offered to everyone. Is there a teaching in Canon Law, the Bible, or the magisterium that offers input in this matter? How can I observe the law and at the same time give a warm welcome to everyone in the chapel and invite them to receive the sacraments?

A — The Gospel of St. Matthew states: “I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36). This passage from St. Matthew shows that prison ministry ought to be held in the highest regard. Yet, ministry to prisoners, like all forms of ministry in the church, has its own challenges and tensions. From the way the question has been expressed, it seems that the key issue is the celebration of the Eucharist and Holy Communion. On the one hand, prison chaplains want to be the welcoming face of the church, and that is perhaps most especially the case when it comes to the Eucharist, the table of the Lord. On the other hand, the discipline of the church as articulated in the Code of Canon Law (844.1-4) normally forbids distributing Holy Communion to persons from other Christian traditions and communities. Many Catholic missalettes and parish bulletins make a statement to this effect. How can one observe the discipline of the church and still be welcoming?

Two suggestions occur to me. First, if an inmate who is not a Catholic regularly expresses a desire to participate in the Eucharist, perhaps an invitation to participate in the RCIA is in order. The liturgical and catechetical opportunities afforded by the RCIA would help a person appreciate more fully the church’s teaching and tradition.

Second, while a non-Catholic inmate may not normally receive the Eucharist, he or she might be encouraged to encounter the Lord present in the Holy Scriptures, and especially the Liturgy of the Word.