By Fr. George Williams, SJ, San Quentin State Prison chaplain, San Quentin, California
May 16, 2017 — This reflection is an excerpt from Issue 123 of Promotio Iustitiae, focused on Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola’s call to prison ministry.
I lift the Blessed Sacrament for the men inside the cage to see. “This is my body, which is given for you.” God is here in this awful place.
The “chapel” on San Quentin’s Death Row is a windowless old shower room encased in a heavy metal cage. There are six wooden benches bolted to the floor for the congregation. I stand outside their cage, having padlocked myself inside my own cage as required by the department, wearing my black bulletproof, stab-proof vest.
There is a harsh fluorescent ceiling light over me, and as I raise the host, the light illuminates it. The men are quiet and focused, and I imagine as I am standing there facing them, separated by the steel mesh and padlocks, that the light of Christ is streaming forth from that host, dispelling the dark shadows of “East Block,” San Quentin’s Death Row for men.
St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, said, “See God present in you just as God is present in a temple. See yourself as God’s own image and divine likeness.” Much of my work with prisoners is to help them see the presence of God in themselves.
The major spiritual illness of most prisoners is shame. At the deepest level, they believe that they are “no good.” Many have learned to identify themselves by what others have labeled them: criminals, murderers, even monsters. This radical sense of being worthless, bad, a “nothing,” lies at the root of most antisocial behavior. I believe we must reject the lie that says we are nothing but the worst sin we have committed.
What they seem to long for the most is forgiveness. As a priest, I bear witness to God’s forgiveness. God’s mercy is greater than our worst sins. The love and mercy of God, expressed through the death and resurrection of Jesus, makes forgiveness and healing possible for all of us, even the most despised and outcast members of our society.
Since my first experiences in prison ministry as a Jesuit novice, I have seen over and over the face of Christ in the prisoners, as well as in those who guard them. Ironically, it is in the darkness of prison that I encounter most vividly the light of God shining forth.
Fr. Williams with San Quentin State Prison in the background. (Lt. Sam Robinson/San Quentin State Prison)
Prison ministry touches on virtually every important social justice issue of our time — poverty, mental health care, racism, violence and brutality, and the abuse of state power. I have just finished writing my dissertation for a doctorate in criminology from Northeastern University in Boston. I studied ways that correctional officers are socialized into their work roles and suggest steps that can be taken to help them resist the temptation to become cynical and burned out. Helping them would help prisoners too.
I am so encouraged by the recent words of Pope Francis to the Society urging us to press on to the peripheries; this is our charism! The true work of the Society of Jesus, he said, is to offer the people of God consolation and help them so that “the enemy of human nature does not rob us of joy — the joy of evangelizing, the joy of the family, the joy of the church, the joy of creation.” A joy that cannot be stripped from us by the magnitude of the evils of the world we confront.