Pro-life hero Norbertine Priest remembers time as a prison chaplain | National Catholic Registry
‘I was there to introduce them to the person of Jesus Christ,’ says Pre-Norbertine Father Leo Celano
Among his many apostolates, Norbertine Father Leo Celano, 89, served as prison chaplain at the Southern Reception Center and Clinic (SRCC) in Norwalk, California. Although the facility is no longer used as a prison, at the time of its service it was one of two diagnostic detention centers in the state for juvenile male offenders, who underwent testing and were then sent to serve their sentences in other state facilities.
Father Leo is a member of the Norbertine Order of St. Michael’s Abbey in Southern California and is the community’s first American vocation after seven Hungarian members fled communist Hungary and established St. Michael in 1961. After having spent time in seminary on the East Coast, he entered St. Michael’s in 1967 and was ordained a priest in 1972. He is well known in the community for being a strong advocate of the Catholic faith, as well as for his pro-life activism, including his arrest for blocking entrances to abortion clinics during Operation Rescue protests.
Those incarcerated at the SRCC were all convicted felons, guilty of crimes such as murder, rape and armed robbery, and were almost always products of broken homes and violent neighborhoods. At the time of his service in the 1990s, 45% were Hispanic, 30% black, 15% white and 5% Asian. All were male (in fact, 96% of the youth in the 11 California Youth Authority facilities were male). At the time of his service, the facility housed 650 boys, nearly 150% of its capacity.
“I was there to introduce them to the person of Jesus Christ,” Father Leo explained of his role as chaplain. “And if they already knew him, I helped them bond with him.”
Father Leo, for example, recalled the prayer and support he offered to 18-year-old Jeff, who was brought to the SRCC hospital ward on the verge of death from a muscle disorder. rare. Jeff had the ability to be affable and good-natured with visitors, but was a three-time felon, convicted once of auto theft and twice of burglary. Her father was a drug addict and spent all his money on his addiction. His mother and his only brother died in a car accident. When his father kicked him out of the house, Jeff turned to crime to support himself. Like many boys in the detention center, he used drugs. When Father Leo got to know him, he resolved to change his life of crime and go back to school.
Father Leo’s message to Jeff and the other boys was simple: “God didn’t make junk. You are special, created in the image and likeness of God. You are called to know the Lord and to experience his love and forgiveness.
Low self-esteem is a typical illness among boys and suicide attempts were common. Often they had begun sexual activity as young as 12 or 13, and by their 18th birthday they had fathered two or three illegitimate children whom they were unable to support.
Another boy Father Leo worked with, Ed, 17, was the father of two young children by a 15-year-old girl he was unmarried to. Ed had the many tattoos common to gang members and attempted to escape the facility. Ed’s daughter and parents brought her children to the facility to visit Ed; during a visit, they informed him that his 15-year-old younger brother had been killed in a drive-by shooting. Ed’s parents, who were poor immigrants, had to raise Ed’s children.
At their request, Father Leo counseled the boys in a cell converted into any office in the SRCC facility. His first question was, “Tell me about your relationship with your father. To which 80% replied: “I have never met this man.
The priest identifies a direct link between the availability of the father at home and the involvement of boys in delinquency. With the fathers absent, the boys suffer from the loss of what Father Leo calls the “three Ds” – discipline, direction and devotion. The mothers then become the caregivers in the home, and they too are absent from the boys’ lives most of the time. This results in the loss of the “three A’s” — attention, affirmation and affection.
Starved by the love of a healthy family life, the boys frequently turned to the gangs for help, and so began their involvement in drugs and crime. They also seek that love in sex and beget children that they are unable to provide for. Father Leo also suggested that what Pope St. John Paul II called society’s “culture of death” mentality and sex-saturated programs all contribute to boy delinquency.
On Sundays, Father Leo offered two Masses in prison which were attended by about 250 people. While conceding that some went just to get out of their cells, he remarked, “The boys are respectful, reverent and receptive to Mass. I am happy to see that most are aware of the divine presence.
The SRCC staff appreciated Father Leo’s ministry, he said. Bob Schulman, who served as deputy superintendent of the SRCC and was Fr. Leo’s supervisor, recalled, “His job was to be their religious advocate, to offer the ‘religious angle.’ The pupils loved him.
Father Leo began his penitentiary ministry at the suggestion of his former superior, the founding abbot of St. Michael’s Abbey Ladislas Parker (1915-1994). At the time, Father Leo laughed at the assertion of the reform school’s most famous chaplain, Father Edward Flanagan (“There’s no such thing as a bad boy”), but after his years of ministry in the prisons, he came to accept.
“They are all good boys! But even good boys do silly, stupid things. I have come to define sin as doing something foolish or stupid.
Father Leo went on to say that in the right environment, boys can recognize their natural gifts and continue to fulfill their potential.
“They can be good men. They can be great men. They can be saints.