| Bishops moved after meeting prisoners
After their pastoral visit to San Quentin State Prison Sept. 30, Oakland Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone and seven other California bishops were asked by Debbie McDermott of the California Catholic Conference, the organizer of the visit, to submit written reflections within a week.
Many reports arrived just hours later from delegates who seemed eager to distill an experience that opened their eyes and hearts in unexpected ways.
"Little did I know that within the walls of San Quentin I would encounter, among many others, a former seminarian from my alma mater, St. John's in Camarillo," wrote Fresno Bishop Armando X. Ochoa. The bishop described meeting the man with whom he had both much and nothing in common at the prison's Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Chapel and thinking: "There but for the grace of God go I."
Many of the bishops described their humbling awareness that prison inmates carry an additional burden of being seen by the world — bishops included — as a unit, not as individual persons.
Shackled, pale and heavily tattooed, some of the men seen early in the day hobbling throughout the prison complex under the watch of rooftop riflemen and prison staff did indeed meet visual expectations. But after a day spent in face to face encounters with prisoners, many delegates felt humbled by the stereotypes they brought with them and keenly aware of their human connectedness despite the very different paths their lives had taken.
"Abandon all stereotypes," said Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco in a reflection delivered the night of the visit. "The personalities and levels of intellectual and spiritual maturity of inmates are as diverse as any other collection of human beings. Many of the inmates we briefly visited with on death row showed a religious sensitivity."
The visit to the death chamber was distressing to many of the delegates.
"How someone could be killed to bring about healing just doesn't make sense," said San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop William J. Justice.
The apparent rehabilitation of many of the prisoners was the most positive impression of the day for the bishops.
"Without a doubt, many of the men with whom I spoke appear to have experienced a change of heart," said Bishop Ochoa, who credited rehabilitation to the ongoing presence and ministry of the Catholic priest and the breadth of prison programs.
According to McDermott, the bishops will be meeting at the end of this month to discuss their collective experience at San Quentin and ideas for how the church can respond to the needs of inmates at smaller rural prisons.
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