Drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge and you pass through what many call God’s country: the San Francisco Bay, Marin and Sausalito, Mt. Tamalpais to the left, Tiburon to the right. Just before you reach San Rafael, take a right turn and go down the hill to a gate. An armed guard checks for your name on that day’s list. If it’s there, he’ll buzz you in. To your left, sail boats speed along waves on the Pacific Ocean.
Walk down the road to a building where your name and ID are verified. Then proceed to the security scanner. Here you remove everything from your pockets and bags and hand them over to a guard at a metal table. What you can’t take in is placed in a bin and locked away; everything else is handed back to you, usually just your ID and car keys. Today, they allowed my sheet music.
After one last check through a metal detector, you enter a narrow hallway that ends with a gate of metal bars. The red light above flashes and an alarm sounds as the bars slide open. You step into a space big enough for two people and face another set of bars. The gate behind you slams shut sounding just like in those prison movies. The alarm stops, and all is silent for a moment, except for the pounding of your heart. You begin to wonder if you’ll be stuck in this cell when the alarm sounds again and the gate before you opens.
Welcome to San Quentin, the oldest prison in California and the largest death row in the United States.
For several months, my host, Br. Rufino Zaragoza, OFM, had been coordinating a music ministry among some of the inmates. The men he worked with had a bit more freedom to participate in group activities because of the nature of their crimes and their good behavior.
Br. Rufino had invited me to sing with the inmate choir for Mass. It was All Saints Day. As the chapel slowly filled with inmates, most of them sat in the back. A group of 20 or so men came to the front, and Br. Rufino introduced each of them to me. This was the choir.
We stood around the upright piano, and Br. Rufino invited some of the guys to share their stories. They were all a bit nervous. One guy broke the ice by saying how much he loved being part of the choir. Then others talked about what they wanted to do once they got out—the jobs they dreamed of, the kids they longed to see again. One man I guessed to be about my age, 30 or so, said he had been in prison since he was 18. San Quentin was all he knew of his adult life.
Mass began, and, like some of our churches, much of the assembly didn’t sing. But the choir sang their hearts out, not always in tune but always as if they believed what they sang.
I remember nothing of the Mass except for this one moment. At Communion, we began singing David Haas’ “Blest Are They.” The choir led the first verse, and I just listened: “Blest are they, the poor in spirit. Theirs is the kingdom of God….” When we got to the refrain, I tried to join in, but I couldn’t. The truth of those Beatitudes hit me against the paradox of who was singing those words: “Rejoice, and be glad! Blessed are you! Holy are you!” These men who had nothing, lifers forgotten by society, prisoners confined to a concrete box with a million-dollar view visible only through a two-inch slit of a window—they were singing of how blest they were. They were singing to me of how blest I was. They were reminding all of us about true freedom, true joy, true hope that comes not from what you have or where you are, but from who you believe in. They believed in the goodness of those waiting for them. They believed in the hope of a second chance. Seen through the eyes of God, there in God’s country, all of us in that moment were part of the communion of saints. In that song, I saw who these men truly were—each beloved of God.
Saint Quentin, an early Christian saint, was persistent in his preaching, which led to his imprisonment, torture, and beheading. Roman soldier threw his body into the marshes to be forgotten forever. His preaching, however, would not end with his death, for his body would be discovered over and over again down through the centuries by those with eyes to see, as a testimony to the perseverance of the Good News.
Saint Quentin’s feast day is October 31, the eve of All Saints. There among those inmates, singing and rejoicing, we discovered his body once again.
Diana Macalintal is the Director of Worship for the Diocese of San José in California and holds a Master of Arts in Theology from Saint John’s University, Collegeville. She has served as a liturgist, music, and catechumenate director in campus, parish, and diocesan ministries for over 25 years and has been a keynote speaker, workshop presenter, liturgist, and music director for many national conferences. She has numerous published articles on liturgy, music, and the catechumenate and wrote The Eucharist Catechist’s Guide (Saint Mary’s Press, 2009). Her latest books are a collection of prayers called The Work of Your Hands and a parish resource for marriage preparation called Joined by the Church, Sealed by a Blessing: Couples and Communities Called to Conversion Together (both Liturgical Press, 2014) which she wrote with her husband, Nick Wagner. She serves on the board of advisors for Liturgical Press and for GIA Publications, Inc., and is co-founder of TeamRCIA.com, an online resource for catechumenate ministers. Contact her at Diana@TeamRCIA.com