One of the highlights of my ministry as Archbishop of San Francisco is my twice-yearly visits to San Quentin State Prison in Marin County. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I celebrated Holy Mass for the inmates there every year on Christmas Eve and then again on a Sunday in the springtime. Visiting the incarcerated is an essential activity of the Church (cf. Mt 25:36), and I am deeply grateful to all those who minister in various ways in the detention facilities of our archdiocese. My visits to San Quentin have been a gift to me, enriching my faith and prayer life, and I eagerly look forward to when I can return to celebrate Mass there again.
Whenever I have celebrated the Holy Mass at San Quentin, I have been struck by how the inmates worship our Lord so well, with beautiful singing and great devotion, despite the hardship of incarceration. It always inspires me to see how they pour their whole heart and soul into their worship, given their difficult situation in life. Perhaps a bit ironically from the human point of view, they even seem to feel a certain kind of freedom in a most intense way at our celebrations of the Holy Eucharist.
I could not quite understand this until I took note of a unique feature in San Quentin’s Catholic chapel: the crucifix depicts Christ as we would usually see him in any of our churches, except for one large difference – his loin cloth is not the usual white garment we see painted on our images, but rather is rendered in the blue color of the prisoners’ uniforms. The message of Christ’s vesture in “prison blue” is starkly clear: the crucified Lord lovingly and intentionally identifies himself with those held in prison.
Perhaps this could be considered a sort of “inculturation” of religious art in a prison facility; either way, it certainly brings to mind the words of our Lord in the passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel referenced above (25:35-36): “For I was … in prison and you visited me.” What is more, in the Gospel of St. John, the same Lord Jesus, who makes himself one with prisoners, also identified himself with those who receive the Holy Eucharist: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (Jn 6:56). Here, then, is the connection: the devout worshippers at San Quentin understand that the one who identifies with them in their prison blues on the cross is the same one who identifies himself with them in the Eucharist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the same one whom they worship and adore with such freedom and joy….
The above comes from a Nov. 23 posting on the Archdiocese of San Francisco website.