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Denver Newsroom, Dec 24, 2021 / 12:00 pm (CNA).
Prison is probably the last place people think of when they think about the holidays. Yet Christmas behind bars is a reality this year for more than 2 million Americans.
And across the country, prison chaplains will do their best to bring some measure of comfort and joy to incarcerated men and women.
Father George Williams, a Jesuit in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, served as chaplain at San Quentin State Prison and its 4,000 inmates for decades, before retiring from ministry last year.
San Quentin, located near San Francisco, is known for housing California’s most notorious inmates, and also as the site of California’s death row, though the death penalty is halted in the state currently due to a moratorium.
Despite this, Williams told CNA in 2020 that Christmas at San Quentin could be “actually fun and kind of festive.” But more than that, Williams said Christmas celebrated in prison actually helped him tap into the spirit of the season.
“When you strip away all the stuff that we do around Christmas to the real meaning of it, I think the prison to me came closest,” Williams said.
“Jesus was born kind of on the bad side of town, in a way. And the people who came were shepherds. And in those days, shepherds were not kind of reputable people. They were more like day laborers who couldn’t get any other kind of work. So they would be hired to stay up all night and watch the sheep…that was kind of where Jesus chose to be. It was in the margins, with the outcasts.”
During his time as chaplain, Williams celebrated Christmas Mass for the inmates each year.
“Normally, what I would do is I would go into the prison and celebrate Mass with them probably on Christmas Eve. And, of course, we can’t do it at midnight in the prison. So it’d usually be between six and seven,” Williams told CNA in 2020.
“For some reason, the Protestant chaplain didn’t celebrate Christmas very much. So, a lot of the guys who were accustomed to going to the Protestant chapel would also join us. And so, like any other church, you kind of have the people go to Church twice a year. And so we always had a big crowd.”
He said he experienced many moments of beauty and reflection in San Quentin— particularly while ministering to the more than 700 inmates on death row, where he occasionally saw the beauty of God’s forgiveness in the faces of men who, despite being convicted of horrific crimes, had later put their faith in Christ and found “purpose and joy in life.”
Of course, Christmas in prison can never replace Christmas with family and friends. Williams said a lot of inmates struggle with that.
“Prison is one of the last places you really want to be at Christmas. It’s hard. People want to be with their families, with their kids if they have kids. And they can’t. So, in some ways it could be very painful,” he said.
“But I always found that keeping busy and having something to do to celebrate was good, because a lot of times a lot of guys would just kind of want to go to their cells and just pull the covers over their heads and sleep through it and get it over with. But, when they did engage, I think they found it much more enjoyable than, you know, being alone and miserable would be.”
He said he did a lot of pastoral counseling and care, helping people deal with grief and loss, which can be particularly acute when a friend or family member passes away during an inmate’s confinement.
“Basically the work involves a lot of one-on-one contact with prisoners. Either they would come to the chapel or I would go out to the yard where they hang out, or I would go to their housing units where their cells are. I could talk to them pretty much anywhere in the prison. And it’s just kind of being present to them,” he explained.
Though coronavirus still looms over America’s prisons, Williams said it’s that face-to-face contact and the willingness to engage with people, especially around the holidays, that he has seen make the most difference in the lives of inmates.
“I always found that keeping busy and having something to do to celebrate was good, because a lot of times a lot of guys would just kind of want to go to their cells and just pull the covers over their heads and sleep through it and get it over with,” Williams said.
“But, when they did engage, I think they found it much more enjoyable than, you know, being alone and miserable would be.”
Note: A version of this article appeared on Catholic News Agency’s award-winning storytelling podcast, CNA Newsroom. You can listen to that episode here. Subscribe to CNA Newsroom today on your favorite podcast platform, and leave us a rating and a review.