Father Stephen A. Barber, SJ, stands beside his brother, Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, right, during the ordination and installation Mass on May 25.
JOSÉ LUIS AGUIRRE/THE CATHOLIC VOICE
Your new bishop, my brother, Michael,
'did time' at San Quentin
Stephen and Michael Barber, circa 1957. Both are Jesuit priests.
Albert joined in the celebration of Bishop Barber's installation, at the Mass and at dinner that evening.
The chapel area in the Condemned Housing Unit at San Quentin State Prison exists in the form of two adjoining cages: One large, one small. The larger of the two accommodates approximately 10 condemned inmates at a time, sitting on five wooden benches. Large ribbons of razor wire frame the roof of this ground floor enclosure in East Block.
Adjacent to, but separated from the larger unit, is a small, 3 foot by 8 foot, cage. It too is entered by a large metal door. Two people can stand, awkwardly, in this unit, making room for an old wooden bookshelf, which acts as an altar. So, when the Mass is offered in this area, the large cage acts as the body of the chapel, the small cage becomes the sanctuary, and the bookshelf becomes the altar.
On their way to Mass, a correctional officer escorts the inmates down the tiers and stairs. They arrive handcuffed and in waist restraints, usually clutching their Holy Bible. The clanging of keys and chains echoes throughout the entire condemned housing unit: a kind of signaling that worship will soon begin. At the moment when Holy Communion is distributed to the prisoners, they hold their hands through a small, envelope-sized opening through the bars/cages. The physical and psychic challenges to prayer here defy description. Trust me, if you can pray here, you can pray anywhere else on earth.
It was into this chapel area, at San Quentin State Prison, that I invited my brother, Michael, during the winter and spring of 2004. I was Catholic chaplain at San Quentin and Michael was engaged in the Jesuit Tertianship program. This meant that he was available for pastoral work for some months. He asked if he could volunteer as a priest and chaplain in this community of 6,000 prisoners and staff members.
I was glad to have him. Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Chapel, along with many free volunteers, serves the more than 5,000 inmates, correctional and free staff members and administrators at San Quentin. We considered it the home parish church, if you will, for all those whose lives have led them to that place.
The condemned population at San Quentin, those men who have been sentenced to death in the state of California, approximately 730 men, exists as a kind of "mission" within the larger general population. Offering Mass, hearing confessions, counseling and the general operation of the chapel were the order of the day.
Michael immediately made himself busy. Much of the pastoral work there involves direct interaction with the prisoners: lifers, parole violators, the condemned, as well as the correctional staff. Walking the tiers, visiting the hospital and mental health lock-up units, walking the yard; grabbing a cup of coffee in the commissary.
Folks in the small town that is San Quentin want a priest to confide in, to ask for advice, or just to pray with. A Padre. As true as this is in the free world, so much more so is this true in the world of the incarcerated. Michael understood and respected this instinctively. Immediately.
My office phone rang one day: The family of a prisoner called to say that his mother had died suddenly, unexpectedly, and would the chaplain notify him, and be there with him. I asked Michael to have the man, Javier, escorted to the chapel where he would give him the news. Javier arrived with the escorting officer. The look on his face was not good. Inmates are not regularly escorted to the chapel in the middle of the morning, so Javier knew something was up. Michael walked Javier into the center of the chapel, where he gave him the news: the most difficult moment you can imagine for an inmate. In an instant the man realizes his loss, the fact that he can't be with his family, he can't say "Good-bye," and that he can't attend the funeral. Tears later, we put Javier on the phone with his family so he could speak with his sister.
A few days later Michael concelebrated the Requiem Mass for Javier's mother at St. Paul's Church in San Pablo. He stood in the sanctuary of St. Paul's in place of Javier's heart.
Michael read the prayer: "May the Angels lead you into Paradise, may the martyrs welcome you on their way …" That was a Michael Barber moment I will never forget. Javier has since been released from San Quentin, having served his time. He was on the plaza of the Cathedral of Christ the Light on the morning of Michael's Episcopal Consecration. Javier greeted Michael with a big hello and an embrace as we entered. He's thriving. Laus Deo.
San Quentin houses countless veterans from our Armed Services. The veteran community stands as a kind of fraternity: prisoners and officers alike. Michael made a strong impression with these guys in a real and unassuming way. The correctional officers were keenly interested to meet the Navy chaplain/priest who had served in the Iraq war. The inmate veterans walked the yard with Michael, sharing stories and memories.
Michael wore his Navy dress whites on the prison yard for an afternoon Veterans Day event. Everyone took notice. All were filled with pride.
Michael was with us during Holy Week at the chapel. All the Holy Week ceremonies were celebrated: Palm Sunday procession, Holy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper, Good Friday (the prisoner Pastoral Council members presiding), and of course Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday Mass.
Michael joined in the washing of the feet ceremony on Holy Thursday. Together we washed the feet of the unshackled prisoners. Prisoners were hesitant to have their feet washed. Michael explained that the priest stands in the place of Jesus: just as Jesus had washed Saint Peter's feet. As tender and transparent a moment as I have ever witnessed. Tears mingled with the scented water. Ten years before Pope Francis was famously photographed washing the feet of young prisoners, in Rome, this sacred gesture, at San Quentin, foreshadowed and prepared Michael to serve as your bishop.
Two men who met Michael while incarcerated at San Quentin have since been paroled and now live in Oakland. Albert had served as master of ceremonies at the Catholic chapel, while J.T. was lead cantor. The Board of Prison Hearings had found Albert and J.T. suitable for parole, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed the documents allowing them to go home after nearly 30 years of incarceration. Like Governor Brown, they attended the Mass of Installation for Michael.
J.T. walked over to Governor Brown, at the conclusion of the ceremony. "Thank you, Governor, for my release." "Good luck to you, J.T.," responded the governor.
A moment of private grace, personal and inevitable. Albert and J.T. attended the installation banquet in Michael's honor at the Cathedral that same evening. The man who had washed their feet, in the place of Jesus, now their Shepherd. His former flock, at San Quentin, now standing among his free flock in Oakland.
Over the years Michael regularly visited the chapel at San Quentin for Mass with the condemned and general populations. The inmates and correctional staff asked for him frequently. "How's your brother doing? Give him my best." "Ask him to say a prayer for me …"
Once the door opened, Michael kept his foot in the door.
Since May 4, many have asked me "Does your brother, Michael, know Pope Francis?" "Have they ever met?" Many Jesuits wonder about this.
I focus on this: Javier and Michael, Javier's new bishop, remain connected. Albert and J.T. joined Michael, at table for dinner, to celebrate a singular moment in their history.
To all of this I say, with Javier, Albert and J.T., and so many others, prisoners, correctional officers, volunteers, veterans, you name it … "Holy Father, Pope Francis … good lookin' out!"
(Rev. Stephen A. Barber, SJ, is the Roman Catholic chaplain, emeritus, at San Quentin State Prison.)
back to top