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The ACTS journey: Parish to prison

The Fredericksburg prison ACTS core teamed up with ACTS men from St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in San Antonio to put on the first retreat at the Briscoe Unit in Dilley in February. The group photo above shows the prison ACTS team of 30 men along with 65 inmates who participated in the retreat. Mass and confession are offered at the facillity monthly by Father José Villanueva from St. Joseph Parish in Dilley.
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By Deacon Bob Leibrecht
For Today’s Catholic

ACTS retreats have enriched the lives of many adults and youth in the San Antonio area from its early beginnings in 1987. ACTS, like the Cursillo, is a three day retreat consisting of talks, sacraments, prayer, fellowship and fun.

Many talks contain the presenter’s personal testimony, as to how the Holy Spirit has led to reconciliation (Return of the Prodigal Son) and healing in their life. The Book of Acts describes how the apostles spread the Gospel message in the early church through small thriving Christian communities. So the focus of these retreats is to continue this effort in building similar communities of love in our parishes. The letters in the word ACTS represent the themes of Adoration, Community, Theology, and Service. These retreats have had a profound effect on the spirituality of many so the intent is to transform a mountain top “Fire for the Lord” experience (Mt 17:1-9) and turn this love into action. This effort has spawned the building of spirit filled communities with many responding to the call of Service in the various parish ministries resulting from changes since the Second Vatican Council.

ACTS attendees are young, old, rich, poor, Catholic and non-Catholic and include the Spanish speaking faithful. Over the last 25 years, ACTS has reinvigorated the spiritual lives of individuals, families and entire parishes. Besides the growing effort to build spirited filled parish families, ACTS is now being extended into the Texas prisons. This call to Service in prison is in response to Matthew’s Gospel (25:36), where Jesus said, “…I was in prison and you came to visit me…” ACTS provides a vehicle to take the building of small communities and extend it inside the prison walls. The goal is to provide the same opportunity for the imprisoned living in darkness to experience peace, as those who attend parish retreats have found. This vision was implemented when a group of men from several Hill Country parishes teamed up to put on the first three day prison ACTS retreat in August 2009 at the Connally Unit, located in Kenedy.

Prior to this effort, Kairos was the primary retreat program offered to build a Christian community in prison. Kairos, also modeled after the Cursillo, began over 25 years ago and is now active in 31 states and over 40 prisons in Texas. It is a great ministry, but doesn’t include the sacraments, and the talks don’t address the fullness of truth embodied within the Catholic Church. Kairos has taken a similar journey, like ACTS Missions, in extending the Christian message far and wide, but building community in the prison setting versus in the parish. Prison ACTS hopes to follow this same path, but building a Catholic community in the Texas prisons. To this end, ACTS is now an approved retreat program having the endorsement of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) in Huntsville. Even so, each prison has local authority with its warden and chaplain so their approval is still needed to hold an ACTS retreat, just like it is in getting the pastor’s support to bring a retreat to a parish.

Within TDCJ, there are over 100 prisons and less than 10 have a Catholic chaplain. The Connally Unit is blessed to be one of those with Father Joseph Varghese serving as chaplain. When he first came in 2008, there were no Catholic activities. With the initial ACTS retreat, a fire was ignited in the men to learn more about the Catholic faith so an RCIA program was begun. As a result, Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Cantú confirmed 10 men at a Mass celebrated at the unit in September 2010. Since then, there have been four further retreats, two in 2010 and another two in 2011. With a large number of men now interested in Catholicism, RCIA is offered twice a week, and after three-plus years, the Catholic community has grown to over 100. The blessings continued in December 2011, when Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, MSpS, confirmed 26 more men. Also, another ACTS retreat will be held at Connally from March 20-22. These efforts are bearing much fruit because of dedicated and committed team members who provide weekly teaching and worship services at the prison.

With many state prisons located in rural areas, the smaller local parishes don’t have the necessary resources to lead a retreat, and in many cases, there may not even be an existing parish ACTS community to draw upon. This was the case in Kenedy at the Connally Unit, and also in Dilley at the Briscoe Unit, where an ACTS retreat was recently held from Feb. 2-5. In this instance, the Fredericksburg prison ACTS core teamed up with ACTS men from St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in San Antonio to put on this first retreat at the Briscoe Unit.

The group photo above shows the prison ACTS team of 30 men along with 65 inmates who participated in the retreat. As with Connally, it will be important to have a dedicated team to follow-up with those that attended the retreat. To achieve this, ACTS graduates from St Mark’s and other surrounding San Antonio parishes will be adopting this prison to lead future retreats and offer a weekly RCIA class, Spanish Bible study and worship service. In addition, Mass and confession are offered monthly by Father José Villanueva from St. Joseph Parish in Dilley so this is a real team effort to serve our brother in Christ.

Besides the efforts at Connally and Briscoe units in the Archdiocese of San Antonio, prison ACTS is branching out, like ACTS Mission, in taking the retreat to other prisons in the state. Three retreats have been held at the Stevenson Unit in Cuero (Victoria Diocese) and two at the Glossbrenner Unit in San Diego (Corpus Christi Diocese). Further retreats are planned in 2012 at the McConnell Unit in Beeville, also in Diocese of Corpus Christi, and at the Stiles Unit in the Diocese of Beaumont.

This plan for prison ACTS growth requires not only a committed team to lead the retreats, but an even more dedicated core group to provide weekly follow-up to assist in building and sustaining the faith of the Catholic community at each prison. With this being the case, there is an “urgent need” for many ACTS graduates to join the prison ACTS team and so assist in carrying out this corporal work of mercy established by Jesus himself.

If you would like to learn more about the prison ACTS effort, contact Larry Reeh at (830) 456-5450 or e-mail him at You can read more about this ongoing effort at If you feel God is calling you to serve in this ministry to the incarcerated, but are unsure of where to focus your energy, you can contact Deacon Bob Leibrecht, director of Criminal Justice Ministry (CJM) to get further details about the various areas of ministry and needs within the archdiocese. Contact him by e-mail at, or call him at his parish, Church of the Good Shepherd in Schertz, at (210) 658-4350.


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