Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone returned to San Quentin’s Catholic Chapel to celebrate the traditional Christmas Eve Mass for the first time since 2019. COVID-19 restrictions prevented the Archbishop from visiting the prison in 2020 and 2021.
San Quentin residents filled the chapel to capacity for the event. The Archbishop talked about his longing to return to San Quentin during the long pandemic-driven hiatus. He said he saw many new people, and attributed the change to the release of more familiar faces from the past.
“Come to think of it, I hope I won’t see you on my next visit. It would mean you have left as well,” said Cordileone.
“The most common question the next three days will be, ‘What did you get for Christmas?’ ” the Archbishop said. “No one will ask, ‘What did you give for Christmas?’ I hope this Christmas changes our mentality.”
The presence of the high church official awed San Quentin resident Gabriel Ordenain. “No one at this level performs a traditional Christmas [Eve] Mass for incarcerated Christians. Archbishop Cordileone’s presence ensured our Christmas was with God,” he said.
Father Manny prayed and blessed the food and requested nourishment for all of the resident’s callings. He then gave grace to the Lord, as did the residents of SQ who congregated for the dinner.
Danny Gomez, in prison for four years, celebrated his first Christmas at San Quentin. “It’s good to have everyone here helping together, inside and out … this is our Christmas and the time to celebrate Christ,” Gomez said.
Luis Figueras, 60, incarcerated since 1998, has been a regular at the Catholic Chapel
Others in attendance were similarly inspired. Catholic clerk Arturo Melendez said, “What an honor to experience the celebration of the Lord’s birth and supper with a successor of His apostles, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.”
Incarcerated resident Alberto Navarro said, “My first Christmas at SQ and first time ever seeing a bishop. It’s an experience that moved me closer to God.”
Ordenain said, “The bishop brought light to SQ, becoming the guiding star for lost souls. He makes us feel cared for by Jesus and acknowledged as part of Jesus’ family.”
Senior Sister Sharon of the Missionaries of Charity in Richmond shared the event with San Quentin’s residents. “Worshiping with all of you on Christmas Eve and preparing SQ men each Monday for sacrament is beautiful,” she said.
San Quentin’s Catholic Choir Director Megan O’Brien was also present to hear the Archbishop’s message. “One of the most beautiful evenings of my life; I will fulfill Bishop Cordileone’s request by giving back to the SQ community. Jesus and most of the apostles spent time imprisoned. Jesus’ human life ended while incarcerated but He was spiritually free. Archbishop Cordileone comes to SQ for most Christmases and the public never sees the magnitude of his commitment. It is truly amazing,” said O’Brien.
San Quentin’s Jesuit Chaplain Manuel Chivara said of the Archbishop’s visit, “Oftentimes the priesthood is perceived backwards in the Catholic Church. Priests are not there to be served, but to serve. Archbishop Cordileone displayed service tonight and we look forward to his return Easter weekend.”
Captain Sam Robinson expressed gratitude for the visit, telling Cordileone, “You blessed the prison tonight. Thank you.”
The Archbishop responded, “Jesus is alive and well behind bars and redemption is always possible. That’s what Christmas is all about.”