As I stood behind the altar last Sunday night at Mass at the prison, I looked out at a full chapel – more than 100 prisoners gathered together – and once again, in their faces I saw something that moved me to tears. I didn’t see criminals, I saw something that, quite frankly is the greatest gift of my life – I saw in them what they probably cannot see in themselves – I saw the Glory of the Lord revealed, in human flesh, in tattooed necks and shaved heads, in white and black and brown, in murderers and sex offenders and bank robbers and drug addicts. And if I were to die tomorrow, this grace would be enough; I would be grateful forever to have caught a glimpse of the face of God in that moment.
This is why I am so grateful and blessed to have the privilege of being a priest for them in the prison. It’s not naïve romanticizing – I hear their confessions, I know why they are there. I know there are many people they have hurt along the way… But I also know, because I have been allowed inside some of their hearts, that they have seen and suffered things I can barely imagine. But somehow (it can only be the Grace of God)- they survive, and they are hungry for hope and for forgiveness and healing.
Ironically, I find prisoners are like the rest of us, only more honest sometimes because they’ve been broken down and exposed. So, in that brutal place of punishment and revenge, I often experience what I can only describe as joy. Because the power of God’s love revealed through Christ in the human spirit is stronger than the hardest steel bars or sharpest razor wire.
Written by Fr. George Williams, S.J. Fr. George is Catholic Chaplain and Death Row Chaplain at San Quentin State Prison in California.