Story and photos by Gregory A. Shemitz

EAST MEADOW –With warm words and, more significantly, with his physical presence, Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez of San Salvador, El Salvador, shared a message of hope with inmates at the Nassau County Correctional Center during his pastoral visit to the facility here on Saturday, Aug. 19.

The occasion was one of several events on Cardinal Rosa Chavez’s itinerary during a three-day weekend trip to the Diocese of Rockville Centre. The 74-year-old prelate, who was elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis in late June, had accepted an invitation by Bishop John Barres earlier this summer to visit Long Island.

Cardinal Rosa Chavez, accompanied by Bishop Barres and Auxiliary Bishop Nelson Perez, arrived at the jail shortly after 9 a.m. and was greeted by Nassau County Sheriff Michael Sposato, Deacon James McLaughlin, director of the diocese’s office of prison ministry, and the leadership of the Nassau County correction officers’ union.

The cardinal was subsequently escorted to the jail chapel, where he addressed two groups of about 50 male inmates in orange jumpsuits.

He arrived in the chapel near the end of a regularly scheduled Saturday Mass for English-speaking inmates. Auxiliary Bishop Robert Brennan celebrated the liturgy.

At the conclusion of Mass, two inmates, reading from printed notes, welcomed Cardinal Rosa Chavez.

“Congratulations for your appointment from His Holiness Pope Francis,” said one of the inmates from a lectern as Cardinal Rosa Chavez listened closely while seated behind him. “You are both men of the people, as was your friend and mentor Archbishop (Oscar) Romero. We believe that he is seated at the feet of Jesus, smiling down at the work you are doing for the people of El Salvador.”

In addressing Bishop Barres, the inmate said: “We are working on promoting a culture of life, brotherhood and peace. Behind these guarded walls, we are attempting to convert our hearts, minds and souls into being better human beings.”

In his remarks, the second inmate expressed his appreciation for the cardinal taking the “initiative” to visit the jail during a busy weekend. His appearance shows “we are not left out, we are not alone, and we are all welcome and belong to something greater than ourselves in the fullness of Christ,” said the inmate.

Cardinal Rosa Chavez embraced both men at the end of their presentations before speaking in Spanish to the assembled group. Bishop Perez translated the cardinal’s words for the inmates.

“I’m very happy to be here with you and share this moment with you,” Cardinal Rosa Chavez said.

“In this jail there is a chapel. Christ lives among you.”

In meeting with members of the media afterwards, with Bishop Perez serving as an interpreter, the cardinal said that it was “important to be present” at the jail. “That is more valuable than a million words,” he said.

“One knows that all aren’t guilty, many are innocent. We don’t come as judges, but as pastors. There is hope beyond the walls of the church.”

“There is a proverb in Spanish: As long as there is life, there is hope. And as long as there is hope, there is life.”

Cardinal Rosa Chavez greeted the inmates with a handshake as they filed out of the chapel. A short time later he greeted members of the jail’s Latino population as they entered the room for a Spanish-language Mass, which was also celebrated by Bishop Brennan.

The cardinal asked each of the men individually what country they were from as he grasped their hands, sharing a brief embrace with many of them. He then addressed them as a group before the start of Mass.

After a few words from Bishop Brennan, the service commenced as jail officials escorted Cardinal Rosa Chavez and Bishops Barres and Perez from the building.

Prior to getting into an unmarked police car to head to his next event of the day at St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School, West Islip, Cardinal Rosa Chavez was approached near the parking lot by a woman from El Salvador, who said her father knew the cardinal when he was priest in the family’s parish. The woman smiled and shed a few tears as she had a brief conversation with the prelate. They then shared a hug before going their separate ways.

Earlier in the day, while waiting for Cardinal Rosa Chavez to arrive, Deacon McLaughlin spoke about the magnitude of the event.

The purpose of the visit, he said, was to bring the “presence of the church into this environment, an environment that is in desperate need for the hope and spirit of the Gospel.”

By visiting the jail, Cardinal Rosa Chavez is letting “the men, women and staff know that when they think that people have given up on them or are alone, the church is there for them,” Deacon McLaughlin said.