I have just come back from an extraordinary evening with some extraordinary news for you: The Latin Mass is coming back to San Quentin for the first time in three generations!
Last night, our new Benedict XVI Institute Schola and Teaching Choir went to San Quentin for three reasons:
First to give men forgotten by many in society the uplifting experience of pure Sacred Beauty—with music performed by four very talented professional singers.
Second, to teach these men they can chant too; Just hearing these men chant the Litany of the Saints together was inspiring! Our Benedict XVI Institute Schola and Teaching Choir is not just a performing choir: we aim to show ordinary Catholics they can participate in the Mass in this special way.
So our third and most important goal last night was: to invite the men at San Quentin to form a schola that will help bring back the Traditional Latin Mass on August 25. (A schola is a fancy word for a singing school especially for the Mass).
And guess what? Twenty-five men said yes!
This overwhelming response was for me a totally unexpected gift from God.
Here’s how the evening went down:
I drove in with Archbishop Cordileone and met Father Cassian (who will celebrate the Latin Mass August 25) as well as a prison volunteer and the Catholic chaplain Father George Williams at the entrance. As we walked into the Chapel, Father George told us: “The men are just very grateful you are here. Feel free to chat with them, they love that.”
Prison is a kind of community and like any community, there are those who actively work to make it better. We met a lot of men like that last night. Dwight, the sound guy, introduced himself and started asking about how we want to be miked for the Latin Mass. “Bobby”, an old hand, told me he used to sing the Latin Mass at St. Peter’s in the Mission district with the “Christian brothers.” (What a gorgeous old San Francisco church I would love to do a chant camp there! Take a look!) “Sam” who sat behind me, was a Protestant curious what this new music sounded like. He’s only been in San Quentin for two weeks “but the church scene is popping!” he told me.
Father George Williams introduced Archbishop Cordileone for the opening prayer. “This is our brand-new teaching choir and you are our first gig!” he told the men to thunderous applause. “I love telling people our first teaching gig is the San Quentin Schola!” More applause.
Then the music started. Rebekah Wu, our talented music director, organized the music around the “Six Seasons” of the liturgical year. We began with Frank La Rocca’s Ave Maria (and come to think of it also ended with Hail Holy Queen).
Starting in Advent season, the choir mesmerized 60 or so San Quentin prisoners with a mix of Gregorian chant (“Creator Alme Siderum,” “Resonet in Laudibus,” “Attende Domine,” and sacred polyphony old and new (Bruckner’s “Vexilla Regis,” Jean Berger’s “The Eyes of All,” the lovely Christmas carol “I wonder as I wander,” and during the Easter Tridium “Jesus so Lowly”).
During the deep Lenten season, Rebekah gave testimony to God’s healing power in her own life, mentioning the good thief who ended up in paradise with Jesus. Father George interrupted to say a few words: pointing to a huge painting hung on the wall he explained. “That is Saint Dismas,” Fr. George told us. “The good thief who repented and whom Jesus saved. That painting was gifted to us by a death row inmate who died last year Fernando Caro.” Out of evil, God can rescue beauty and give hope, if we let him.
Then it was time to bring the men in to chant with the choir. Rebekah taught us all to sing the Alleluia as the chorus of “O Filii et Filiae,” and then had the men chant The Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
“Now it’s your turn to sing,” she said to the men. (“Do you really want to record this?” a man in front of me quipped.)
Then as I described came the Litany of the Saints, as well as an invitation to form a schola.
Not only do we have 25 enthusiastic volunteers, all the men I spoke with, whether they joined the schola or not, are anxious to come and attend the Latin Mass on the 25th of August.
For some, it will be a trip down memory lane to the music of their Catholic boyhoods. But for many of the young men present, it is a fresh chance to participate in the ancient rituals of the Church, to share the noble sacred beauty that is their heritage too.
“One young man told me that he felt the Holy Spirit buzzing in his soul while he joined the choir in some chanting during the concert. I was especially delighted to see that so many men want to learn Gregorian chant and classical sacred choral music, and help bring the Latin Mass to San Quentin,” said Rebekah Wu who directs the Benedict XVI Institute Schola and Teaching Choir.
After the closing prayer by Archbishop Cordileone, more than a dozen men came up to talk to the singers and to Father Cassian, the Contemplative of St. Joseph monk who is going to celebrate the first Traditional Latin Mass on August 25 at San Quentin.
As one of the prisoners put it to one of our singers: “I don’t want to be in here. But if I have to be in here, I want to be in here listening to music like that.”
“From the large turnout in the Chapel, it was clear that the men at San Quentin have a hunger for beauty and prayer. The concert by the Benedict XVI Institute was clearly enjoyed by those who attended. They also appreciated the support and presence of Archbishop Cordileone who has made it a point to visit the prison often.” Notes Fr. George Williams, SJ, who is the Catholic Chaplain at San Quentin State Prison.
“I saw these men, who humanly speaking are in a dire situation that may seem hopeless, be lifted up to God by sacred beauty and given new hope,” Archbishop Cordileone told me afterwards. “They love to sing, and they worship well. So the response of the men to the invitation to form a Latin Mass schola was overwhelming but not surprising.” He added: “The Benedict XVI Institute teaching choir is clearly fulfilling an important need in ordinary parishes but also for those at the margins of society.”
If you would like to donate to help sustain the San Quentin schola, you can donate online here.
Or you can mail a check to The Benedict XVI Institute, One Peter Yorke Way, San Francisco, CA 94109. (For wiring instructions email Rose Marie Wong email@example.com).