Fourth Sunday of Advent: The Prayer I Heard on Death Row

December 24, 2023  | Bishop Oscar Cantú |  Today’s Readings

“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)


In 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a moratorium on the death penalty. He then ordered the transfer of death row inmates at San Quentin State Prison to other maximum-security prisons in California. These changes elicited concern from San Quentin inmates themselves, as well as the chaplains who care for their spiritual welfare. It is a little-known fact that San Quentin is one of the few prisons in the state to have a dedicated Catholic chapel. 

Compelled by pastoral concern, the California Catholic Conference arranged for four bishops of California, including myself, to speak and minister to the inmates earlier this year in March. The prison’s Catholic chaplain, Father Manny Chavira, and warden graciously arranged what can only be described as a graced encounter with those truly on the fringe of society and the Church. In about five hours, my fellow bishops and I developed a good sense of the culture, issues, fears, and freedoms behind the walls of this infamous prison.

As we walked down the narrow hallway, we could hear the men yelling to each other from their private cells, which do not allow for visual contact. This was part of the cold, harsh reality of prison life and the culture of San Quentin. The clanking of steel rang shrill as the guards opened and closed gates. This permeating sound through the chilly air of the old cinder block building still rings in my consciousness. 

It is not a place easily forgotten. Yet even in these disparate settings, grace still finds a way, and miracles happen.

I was deeply moved to listen to one inmate, who I’ll call Carlos, recount his faith conversion. He shared that he first prayed — and used this term loosely — to Our Lady of Guadalupe, not knowing exactly who she was or what to say. Never having tried such a thing before, Carlos related the words of his first ‘prayer’ to Mary, and truthfully, I was brought to tears by the sheer humanity and humility of his address to Our Lady: “I am not sure exactly who you are, but I know you are sacred from how people treat you. If you could, would you please help me because I am feeling really lost.”

After this, he felt that he heard a voice reply, “You are my son. I love you.” 

This humble interaction is not so dissimilar to the story of Mary we hear in the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The angel Gabriel appears to a young Mary, who is frightened and confused by the message sent to her that she would “conceive in [her] womb and bear a son,” the Messiah. She is just a young girl at the time, and the future that is laid out for her seems bewildering and uncertain.

But even in her mystification, Mary humbly responds: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Mary relies on faith even when the way forward isn’t clear. Because of her faith, God becomes incarnate. (In a few days, we will all join in celebration of that miracle born in humility.)

Like Mary, Carlos relied on faith, and his humility made way for God to enter his heart. His prayer experience inspired him to learn about and eventually become a fully initiated Catholic. He found himself reading the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and about the lives of the saints. He now ministers to his fellow inmates.

Mary and Carlos’ stories remind us that God is actively seeking us, even in the moments we are most lost and uncertain. This Advent I pray our faith can look a little more like theirs: honest, humble, and open to the future God holds for us.