In prison, everywhere – the Eucharist brings freedom and mercy

By Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone

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.

In the Eucharist, we really receive Jesus Christ – “Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity,” as we are so fond of affirming in our Catholic tradition – and we become what we receive; we receive the Body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ. “So if it’s you that are the body of Christ and its members, it’s the mystery meaning you that has been placed on the table of the Lord,” St. Augustine teaches us. “What you receive is the mystery that means you” (Sermon 272). This is our Eucharistic faith – that Jesus Christ is sacramentally present on our altars and that he makes us his Body through the Eucharist. “The Body of Christ,” of course, is also another name for the Church, that is, the whole Church, head and members. We are, then, as St. Paul tells us, “one Body in Christ” (Rom 12:5).

Living the meaning of the Eucharist – enfleshing the mystery of the Body of Christ we receive at Mass by faithfully living as a member of the Body of Christ which is the Church – means, essentially, a life of thanksgiving, for the very meaning of the word “Eucharist” is, literally in Greek, “thanksgiving.” As Catholics, this gives us a much deeper meaning for us to the American civil holiday of Thanksgiving, now soon upon us: we express our thanksgiving for the gift of the Eucharist by imitating our Lord’s immense divine love and carrying out the spiritual and corporal works of mercy in obedience to his commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34). St. John Chrysostom teaches us the inseparable connection between our love for Christ in the Eucharist and our love for him in our brothers and sisters: “Would you honor the body of Christ? Do not despise his nakedness; do not honor him here in church clothed in silk vestments and then pass him by unclothed and frozen outside” (Homily 50). In other words, the only adequate response to the gift of the Eucharist is to extend Christ’s Eucharistic love to others. Because we become Christ’s members when we receive his Body, we are nothing short of Christ’s Body in the world, and so we are called to love like Christ.

“Eucharist.” “Thanksgiving.” As Catholics, every day is to be a “thanksgiving” for us who worship our Eucharistic Lord and are conformed to Him in our reception of Him. This “thanksgiving” brings the immense gifts of freedom and mercy, even as it demands that we lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. The devout worship of the inmates of San Quentin State Prison teaches us this lesson in a concrete way, and for that I am very grateful this Thanksgiving.