Witnesses

Death is always frightening EVEN for me

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03 April 2021

Sister Helen, who is combatting against capital punishment


“No one could ever prove it in court. Nevertheless, I could see the son of God in Patrick Sonnier’s eyes.  He was the first person to be condemned to death whom I accompanied on the day of his execution. That is why, in these Easter days, I think of the possibility of resurrection even for those who have done wrong, like Sonnier, who in 1978 killed a seventeen-year-old boy. And redemption through forgiveness is what I have come to know thanks to the father of that boy, David Leblanc, who was so strong that he was able to forgive his son’s murderer”.

At her home in New Orleans, Louisiana, Sister Helen Prejean will turn 82 in a few days. It was here that she took refuge at the beginning of the pandemic, unable to move for the first time after more than 40 years of activism and prayer against the death penalty in the United States. Her book Dead Man Walking is one of the most important to have been written on civil rights in the 20th century; moreover, it contributed to the reconsideration that led to changes in Church doctrine on capital punishment. Helen Prejean, a nun at the congregation of St Joseph, likes to talk about this from her extraordinary experience alongside those condemned to death. When “entering prisons I understood what Pope Francis said about the Church as a field hospital open to all the wounded, because Christ is where the suffering is and Christ is in the dignity of all human beings, including those who have committed crimes.” From this journey, Sister Helen drew a definition of faith, which is “it is not just prayer, it is not just going to Mass. Faith is understanding the connection between God and all things. It is looking into the eyes of a confessed offender and seeing that God is also in that gaze”. Her books, speeches and public interventions aim to change society spiritually on the subject of justice and revenge, but her reasoning also touches on legal matters and the procedures that lead a State taking a life. Statistically, “capital punishment affects the poorest and most defenseless. I am thinking of Lisa Montgomery, who was put to death by the federal state last January. Her crime is unspeakable, but in her life, she had only known abuse, rape and torture at the hands of her family. She was the most broken of the broken”.

Guilt and forgiveness, innocence and injustice. Sister Helen has lived humanly and christianly within these concepts her whole life. She knows the journey of the victims' families, who after the execution publicly read a message written by the government offices thanking the federal authorities for recognizing that justice has been done. “Rejoicing in the death of a human being, however guilty, is the second trauma for people who have lost a loved one,” reflects the nun. She followed David Leblanc's father’s path step by step of the way, for he was overcome with anger and grief at the murder of his son for which Patrick Sonnier was sentenced to the electric chair. “I shared with this father his journey to forgiveness. The first stage was pain and a desire for revenge. Then one day he said to me, this terrible event has changed my personality. Before I was a meek man, now I am a vessel filled with anger. They killed my boy, but they will not be able to kill me, so he stopped wanting revenge. Mr. Leblanc understood that forgiveness does not mean giving in to weakness or admitting that losing a child is not such a big deal after all. It means giving full flower to the term: forgiveness is something we give first so that God's love and we ourselves are not overwhelmed by what has happened. Thanks to forgiveness, Mr. Leblanc did not lose his sense of love and one day he appeared on the porch of the mother of his son's murderer, Mrs. Sonnier, who barely left the house because she was constantly being attacked and insulted by the townspeople. Leblanc told her: I’m here because we are both parents and we cannot be held responsible for how our children behave”.

The truth of the person who has been condemned to death as a child of God and worthy of being saved is what sustained her in 1995. It was then, on reading Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, she learned that “according to my pontiff and therefore according to the Church the death penalty should be used rarely, actually non-existent except, and these were the words that shocked me at the time, in cases of absolute necessity”. In those very years, the United States was shaken by the case of Joseph O'Dell, who had been sentenced to death after a very controversial trial in which Sister Helen was involved night and day. The nun wrote to the Pope, and “I explained my discomfort to him. The encyclical supported the pro-life movement against abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, that is, the killing of the innocent, but it did not defend the lives of people guilty of having committed serious crimes. I used words that I knew would reach his heart and I told him that one of the six condemned prisoners I had the grace to assist, on the day of execution, handcuffed and surrounded by guards, turned to me and said: Sister Helen, pray that God will help my legs to walk. Helen Prejean’s writing had its own doctrinal effect, since during his visit to St Louis in 1997, Pope John Paul II spoke concretely against capital punishment, which he described as cruel and unnecessary. “For my heart it was an indefinable joy and it was also proof that a woman like me, together with so many women committed to defending the humble and the unfortunate, can renew the spirit of the Church”, continues Sister Helen. More recently, she has written once again to the Pontiff, to Pope Francis, specifically to urge a greater weight be given to the female presence. At the beginning of Francis’ pontificate, she wrote to him to say, “Women possess heart, compassion, a sense of community. The Church will never be saved if she does not invite them to the table of decision-making and dialogue. I can preach in synagogues, in city halls, anywhere, but not in my home which is the church. We need the experience of women to enliven”.

A last thought, which is a reflection that has become urgent for her, is that of her own death. “Although I am familiar with the end of life, I admit to being afraid” she says. To provide an image of consolation she evokes her sister, Mary Ann, who passed away in 2016. “We grew up together and as children in Baton Rouge, where we were born, we played a game where we had to jump off the swing and grab a rope that was dangling there. I was very intimidated because I was afraid of falling to the ground. I remember all the children jumping and grabbing the rope, while I hesitated and Mary Ann with her hands on her hips encouraged me; we all did it, do not cry, now you do it too. I heard her voice again the day after she died. Helen, many of us have died, don't cry, one day it will be your turn. I thank God for having had her by my side for many decades, she was the brave one, and I just followed her example”.

by Laura Eduati