Interview with Mike Banschbach on the prison apostolate in central Texas
Angelus Press: How did the apostolate begin?
Mike Banschbach: Each of us has wished God would send us a postcard expressly stating His will. In 2008, this express-wish postcard came to us at St. Michael’s in the form of a lengthy letter from an offender at a West Texas prison who requested the Latin Mass. At the time we were apprehensive and were definitely not looking to get involved in a prison “ministry”.
Angelus Press: Of what does the apostolate consist?
Mike Banschbach: The apostolate brings the Sacrifice of the Mass and personal instruction in the Catholic Faith and the study of Sacred Scripture to two West Texas prisons. The apostolate also mails books (Douay Rheims Bible, The Imitation of Christ, 1962 Missal, Christian Warfare, Rosary Warfare, etc.) to offenders in more than 40 Texas prisons. We have in the past sent a couple of newsletters, written primarily by offenders, which resulted in a huge increase in interest. Fr. Katzaroff, based in El Paso at Jesus and Mary Chapel, is the unofficial chaplain who offers the Mass and writes many response letters.
Angelus Press: What is an average offender like?
Mike Banschbach: Virtually all were born after Vatican II, so they tend to be very poorly catechized, if at all. Many were baptized, received their first Holy Communion, and some their confirmation; after that they promptly left the Church. Very few had a father figure in their lives during their formative years. Few have a formal education past high school, but they are not stupid—ignorant of many things, slow to understand, but not stupid. Most, but not all, are sincere in their desire to learn about the Faith and make up for lost time. They soak up the information, are very inquisitive, and ask intriguing questions. Quite a few who write to St. Michael’s have some knowledge of the Latin Mass and the SSPX. Since many have been abandoned by their families, they want to know that someone actually cares about them.
Angelus Press: Why might someone want to get in involved in a prison apostolate?
Mike Banschbach: We are all familiar with chapter 25 of the Gospel of St. Matthew: “I was in prison, and you came to me.” But earlier in Chapter 25 we read that “he that had received the five talents coming, brought another five talents, saying: ‘Lord, thou didst deliver to me five talents, behold I have gained another five over and above.’” We all know that God has blessed us with certain “talents” to use in bringing others to the gold mine that is the Catholic Faith, and those talents take the form of sharing our abilities, sometimes our money, but most of all, our time and energy. And we all need to be mindful that “after a long time the lord of those servants came, and reckoned with them,” and that we will be held accountable for the use of the talents given to us.
Angelus Press: What can others do?
Mike Banschbach: These men need prayer, the true Mass, books, personal classroom instruction, and letters. While getting the Mass to them is challenging for many reasons (but not impossible), we all can pray and all can write letters. Many of the offenders receive very few letters, and some none at all for many years. Writing is made easy because offenders can receive “email,” so that if you send a letter electronically, the prison will print it out. Many request a pen-pal, just someone who will take an interest in them and write, even if it is just once a month.
Angelus Press: What if I am interested in providing personal classroom instruction?
Mike Banschbach: Those who live within driving distance of a prison, after a very short training session to become an approved volunteer, can go into any Texas prison to conduct a two-hour class one or more times a month. Normally, the prisons are accommodating to volunteers, as they realize that religious instruction can aid morale within the walls and reduce recidivism outside the walls. One of the best things about teaching the Catholic Faith is that you don’t need to be original! We frequently read the Epistle and Gospel from a recent Sunday, and using scholarly sources (Cornelius A Lapide or Fr. Haydock, for example), we provide an explanation of the Scripture passages. This normally leads to numerous questions, lots of rabbit trails (many of them quite interesting), lively discussion, all of which benefits offenders as well as the instructor: in the words of Anna in The King and I: “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.” We also play CDs of recorded lectures and sermons by Fulton Sheen or by other trusted sources, or show video productions (For Greater Glory, 13th Day, etc.).
Angelus Press: What is the importance of books?
Mike Banschbach: Religion is a much-discussed topic in prison. Even those who nominally identify themselves as Catholics are mercilessly attacked (verbally) by Protestants and Muslims, and because they are so poorly catechized, they are easy prey, and many leave the Faith. Books, however, provide a constant source of truth and support, and since these men have many idle hours each day, they read and re-read books like Sacred Scripture, The Imitation of Christ, My Daily Bread, Open Letter to Confused Catholics, This is the Faith, books on the Saints, and many others. These readers give the books to other offenders and even to the guards. As books are passed along containing the stamp of “St. Michael’s Catholic Church” or as offenders talk with others living on their unit about the books they have received, we get letters every week from offenders who have never written to us before. Typically, we send 3-4 basic books at first, and many write back for more advanced material (The Incorruptibles, Catechism of Council of Trent, Interior Castle, Confessions of St. Augustine, for example). We currently mail about 40-50 packages a month. If you have traditional Catholic books, pamphlets and holy cards, and particularly anything in Spanish that you would like to donate, we will gladly accept those and put them to immediate use.
Angelus Press: How does all this get funded?
Mike Banschbach: We have been fortunate that publishers like Angelus Press and others have given us generous discounts. However, even with discounts, it is easy to invest $50-$100 for a given offender. While St. Michael’s is fortunate to have financial benefactors, we will always accept donations to further the apostolate, which grows every week with new requests.
Angelus Press: Are there any difficulties?
Mike Banschbach: The consistent thing about the Texas Department of Criminal Justice—probably like prisons in other states—is its inconsistency; what may be the norm one week may not be the norm the next week. While the staff is for the most part friendly, the offenders many times are of a higher caliber than the employees (prison work doesn’t pay very well). When taken collectively, the staff and offenders are like a bunch of bickering kids; the guards will tell the offenders that class was cancelled that day, although the offenders know very well that we are coming. We normally work through paid prison chaplains (very few of whom are Catholic), and in those cases we have to deal with the typical anti-Catholic bias. And for those prisons that do have the New Mass, we have to contend with the typical Latin Mass and SSPX rhetoric. But all these are minor inconveniences.
Angelus Press: Can the sacraments be given within the prison walls?
Mike Banschbach: SSPX priests routinely administer the sacrament of Penance before Mass as well as the Eucharist. We often hear the lament: “I really need the Sacraments”. Occasionally, prisoners are also baptized, and the following account was given by an offender about to be baptized by an SSPX priest:
“As the date for my baptism draws nearer, it would seem that the demonic opposition intensifies. Some heretics here have begun to indirectly persecute me. What I mean by this is that, although they usually do not directly attack me for my faith, nevertheless, they gather together and slander it, knowing that I am around. And they tend to do so mockingly....I won’t pretend this does not bother me, because it does! But I won’t let it discourage me!”
Angelus Press: Are there any success stories?
Mike Banschbach: We have often told offenders they will convert more to the Faith on the inside than on the outside. We routinely have, and welcome, non-Catholics attending the Mass and the classes; one non-Catholic offender agreed to come to class but made it clear he was not converting to Catholicism; a year later he was baptized and began serving Fr. Katzaroff’s Mass each month! While we could quote numerous letters, the following excerpts provide a glimpse of the importance of getting truly Catholic material to these men:
“The Bible I received is the most precious gift I have received in my entire life, outside of God’s grace, redemption and salvation! I nearly had tears in my eyes when I opened that envelope and discovered the Divine Office and Bible.”
“When I talk about writing you and receiving materials from you I am immediately told that the SSPX is not in communion with the Church. To be quite honest I feel it is the other way around. If I was a Catholic, I would want to be a member of the SSPX because so far from what I have seen they are the ones holding the Church together.”
“For the first time in my life I’m learning what I’m supposed to learn. Every time I come across a brother in here and they have received a package from you, they are always full of smiles and they yell ‘Hey, I heard from St. Michael’s!’ Every time I hear that I know the Catholic community here is about to get even stronger in our knowledge of true Catholicism.”
“I cannot believe how much you blessed me. When I received your beautiful gifts (books), I almost cried. I was so overwhelmed by all of your generosity, I was beside myself.”
If you would like to donate books, pamphlets, holy cards, or religious pictures, you may send those St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Prison Apostolate, c/o Michael Banschbach, 1703 W. Storey, Midland, Texas 79701. You may direct any questions to email@example.com or call at 432-686-7709.