San Quentin inmates happy to receive the sacraments
Michael C. Barber, SJ
A few Sundays ago I was invited to San Quentin State Prison by the Catholic Chaplain, Father George Williams, SJ. Although San Quentin is in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Oakland is one of the main feeder-dioceses for the prison.
I celebrated Mass for the "general population" Catholic inmates. You may not realize this, but San Quentin has a dedicated Catholic Chapel, which has been beautifully furnished with donated statues, Stations of the Cross, a shining tabernacle and polished brass candlesticks.
The intention is to make you feel like you are not in prison, but in a normal Catholic parish church.
The chapel is called "Our Lady of the Rosary Parish" — and all the normal Catholic sacraments and Masses are celebrated there. The inmates — or rather the parishioners — have a good choir with many instrumentalists, and a fully functional parish council. They even conduct their own RCIA and catechism classes for each other.
The servers at the altar were perfect, as good as you'll see at St. Peter's in Rome. At the Prayer of the Faithful, one of the inmates shouted out his personal intention: "I want to pray for all the victims of my crimes."
In my homily I told the men about my favorite book "Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints," and gave them a few examples. I like the book so much I gave it to each priest in the diocese for Christmas, prompting one to comment, "Bishop, just what are you implying?"
One thing about San Quentin: The inmates are segregated into different sections according to their status, and cannot mix. New men coming directly from a court sentencing wear orange jumpsuits and are kept in one area while the authorities decide to which of the 20-plus state prisons they'll be assigned. They have their own separate Mass in the chapel. General population men can be there for just a few years or life, and have their own Mass. Death row inmates are housed in a separate higher security block with their own separate exercise yard. Ominously, over the door to death row is printed a huge sign: "Condemned."
These men awaiting execution cannot go to the chapel, but the priest can go inside death row and celebrate Mass. It's a very peculiar affair: Only about 12 men can attend at a time, and they are literally in a small cage with pews. The priest stands in an attached cage, and sets up a makeshift altar. There is a cyclone fence wall separating priest and congregation.
I was led to this cage and conferred the Sacrament of Confirmation on one of the inmates, who chose as his Confirmation name St. Dismas (the Good Thief). There is a small opening in the fence where this young man knelt and I was able to reach through and anoint his forehead with the Holy Chrism. A few minutes later he knelt again and reverently received Holy Communion on the tongue through the opening.
Father Williams then led me to another cell-block, "Administrative Segregation" (or Solitary Confinement).
One of the inmates there had been preparing for four years for his Confirmation. They led him out of his cell in shackles and put him in a small visiting cell. I could not enter the cell to be with him, but had to stand outside. The correctional officers asked that I wear a bullet-proof flak jacket over my vestments. "Sorry, sir, but those are the rules." I understood.
This Catholic inmate likewise knelt to receive his Confirmation, and then Our Lord's Body and Blood in Holy Communion through the bars. He was smiling and so excited to receive his Confirmation.
I can see now why Our Lord gave priority to "detention ministry" when he said: "When I was in prison you visited me." I can see now why Pope Francis loves to visit prisons and spent his first Holy Thursday as pope celebrating Mass in a jail. The inmates I met at San Quentin were so grateful for my visit, and for the chance to receive Christ in the sacraments.
It can be easy for us to think we are better than those who are in prison. When I ask people, "When's the last time you went to confession?" many respond, "But Father, I haven't killed anybody."
Thankfully not. But those who have killed someone, yet who have repented and received sacramental absolution from a priest may be in a better state of grace than someone outside prison who has committed a mortal sin and not been to confession.
So strong is the power of Our Lord shedding His Blood on the Cross — and applied to us through Absolution — "so that sins may be forgiven."
The upcoming Holy Year of Mercy starting in December will give us all, myself included, greater impetus to go to confession more regularly, and drink from The Father's fountain of mercy.
I commend all in our Diocese of Oakland who regularly visit and minster in our prisons and jails in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. I likewise commend all those who work as police and correctional officers — who risk their lives — to keep us safe.
back to top