Matthew Zurcher January 14, 2021
(Sacred Heart of Jesus image provided by author/iStock composite)

When I pronounced vows as a Jesuit, a friend on death row in California drew me a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a gift. It is the traditional image in every way but one—marked by the cross and bleeding, a heart on fire is wounded by barbed wire instead of thorns.

The image hangs above my bed and is one of my most precious possessions. Its artist, like Jesus, has been condemned to die for his crimes. He is also now an Oblate of St. Benedict and a holy man. Every day when I wake up, the drawing reminds me that Jesus’ ministry had consequences, that his kingdom of reconciliation and tenderness was not welcome in this world. Then I look at the news and remember that it still isn’t.

•••

In 2019, I was missioned to intern as a chaplain at San Quentin State Prison in California. I worked with the larger population as a catechist, preacher, spiritual companion and music minister. I also frequently visited the men in East Block, where California houses the nation’s largest death row. If you are touring around San Quentin, the iron doors with “CONDEMNED UNIT” spray-painted on them make the building hard to miss.

It was there that I met the man who drew the Sacred Heart. We talked through two sets of bars with an armed guard watching over my shoulder. His cell was bare in a way worthy of his monastic vocation. The only thing I remember on his wall was a detailed, disciplined schedule of when he would pray the Divine Office: Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline. They were all there. I remember thinking that he did not need bells to wake him up. The perpetual shouts and alarms along the unit mark the day well enough. He spoke sweetly about his love of Jesus and devotion to the church.

A picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus hangs above my bed and is one of my most precious possessions. Its artist, like Jesus, has been condemned to die for his crimes.

Defying the counsel of my mentor, George Williams, S.J., I read about what he did. It made me want to puke. It still does. But the man who committed heinous crimes was begging God to save him the same way I do. Of course, I saw the face of Christ in him, but I also saw myself. My life depends on the same grace and mercy his does.

His remarkable devotion is just one instance of the Holy Spirit’s movement in East Block. Clad in my bulletproof jacket, I did weekly Communion services for men locked in what can only be compared to shark cages. I gave them the Eucharist through a breathing hole. One week, we watched Wim Wenders’s movie about Pope Francis, “A Man of His Word.” The view from my little cage was blocked, so I just watched them all weep. I looked on as they saw the pope wash the feet of Italian prisoners on Holy Thursday. I could see them wondering where mercy like that could possibly come from. At the end, one of them wiped his eyes and said about our pope: “This is a good man.”

[Podcast: What’s it like to say Mass on death row? An interview with the Jesuit chaplain of San Quentin prison]

I will never forget serving a beautiful Friday afternoon Mass on a rooftop recreation area just a few feet away from the old gas chamber’s ventilation pipes. There were three inmates up there, praying with the kind of ease, devotion and gratitude I rarely see on Sunday mornings anywhere else. When we went back inside, I mused aloud that the high wall around the edge of the roof must be for suicide prevention. It was not, I was told. It was so the inmates did not have a pleasant view of the bay.

•••

These memories have been alive in my prayer as I witness the Trump administration rush to execute as many federal prisoners as possible on its way out. While our government failed to provide leadership in the face of Covid-19 and a violent insurrection, it is ready to work hard at putting its own citizens to death.

While our government failed to provide leadership in the face of Covid-19 and a violent insurrection, it is ready to work hard at putting its own citizens to death.

In the larger scope of history, there is reason to hope for the coming abolition of capital punishment. But in order to see beyond its current role as a piece in partisan chess, there must be a broader cultural conversion. The woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11) knew that she needed a kind of mercy the world did not know how to give. I wonder if we have stopped identifying with her or believing that we have any need of mercy at all. And I wonder if we, as a society, have become so intoxicated by the Pharisees’ stones that we throw them even after reading Jesus’ word in the sand. Capital punishment, in the context of contemporary social order, will only ever be a maintenance of the machinery of evil it is claimed to suppress. If we are to resist the culture of death, we must rediscover ourselves not as the Pharisees but as the woman who Jesus Christ refuses to condemn.

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These days, my eyes are fixed on that image of the Sacred Heart. Every inch of it is dark. But light comes in through the wound, through the cross, through the barbed wire. Nothing can stop it. The fire is still burning. Somewhere in all of this crime, evil, anger and pain, Jesus has chosen to dwell yet again. Somewhere in my own weakness and failure, he glows. And due to the generosity of a condemned man, I am reminded each day of my vows to live and work according to a kingdom of tenderness, of mercy and of life.

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