“I feel blessed to be with you.” That’s what Cardinal Cupich told about 130 men in Cook County Jail who joined him for Christmas Mass the morning of Dec. 25. The cardinal was continuing a longstanding tradition of the archbishop of Chicago celebrating Christmas Mass with inmates. Archbishops also have often celebrated Easter Mass with inmates and the archdiocese’s auxiliary bishops have celebrated these Masses in Lake County Jail in Waukegan. Kolbe House, the archdiocese’s outreach to those in jail, their families and those affected by the criminal justice system, organized the Mass. It is a “jail ministry” because there are no prisons located in the Archdiocese of Chicago. The ministry began in 1983 and is named after St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest executed at Auschwitz in 1941. Kolbe House ministers to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. “We always want to be present in the jail to celebrate with our brothers and sisters,” said MaryClare Birmingham, director of Kolbe House. “Jesus came into the most forgotten, most hidden, most humble places that the world does not expect him to be. So, on Christmas Day we come because Jesus has come here.” Visiting those imprisoned is one of the corporal works of mercy. “Our ministry is a ministry of presence and prayer and accompaniment,” Birmingham said. “We are here to uphold their dignity, to demonstrate that they are always valued and beloved as children of God, that we are related in kinship as brothers and sisters and that we believe in them.” Assistant director Deacon Pablo Perez has been visiting those in jail for 11 years and said Christmas Day Mass with the cardinal is important. “This right here is special because they are being allowed to practice their faith, but they also see that we as a church care for them and we don’t forget them,” Perez said. “They get an hour to come here and be present with the church and that’s real special.” There is a Gospel calling to the ministry, he said. “It’s important because we’re literally visiting Christ. That’s what we’re doing,” Perez said. “I come and shake their hands and I let them know that we at Kolbe House are always praying for them — when they go to court, when they go to trial. It’s important that we shake their hands and we acknowledge them as human beings. Sometimes they don’t feel that way when they’re in here.” Inmates did the first and second readings during Mass and two seminarians led the music. During his homily, Cardinal Cupich used the example of the shepherds being the first to see the Christ child to remind the men that the Lord is especially close to them. “The first people that received the news of Jesus’ birth were folks who were living on the margins of society, the shepherds. They were off on the hillside. They didn’t smell too good. They were looked upon as kind of a lower class,” he said. They slept in uncomfortable places and wore clothing that identified them as shepherds, the cardinal said. “I imagine you identify with the shepherds in many ways as you come here today. You’re out of the sight of most people. You’re here incarcerated in a way that also makes life sometimes very uncomfortable. And you also wear clothes that you would otherwise not choose for yourself.” The shepherds were the first chosen because they could identify with the Christ child who was born on the margins of society, the cardinal said. “When we’re marginalized, when we’re poor, when we feel as though we don’t count in society, that’s exactly — in the darkness of our lives — where Jesus comes to meet us. That’s why for me it is a blessing to be here because I know that Jesus is here,” he said. Cardinal Cupich encouraged the men to think of how they might feel when they see a newborn baby, like Jesus was, and what sentiments of tenderness and love that might inspire. “Let that be the beginning of something new in your life, where the Lord is reminding you that he’s not finished with you, that there is a deep wellspring of God’s grace and goodness in each one of you that he wants to cultivate,” the cardinal said.