From Death Row
“Heard your Vatican Radio interview from Rome on English radio,” the person speaking is a friend from church who is not enamored with my volunteer work on death row or our efforts to spread the word on the Catholic Church’s teaching against the use of the death penalty. “So, what’s all the hullaballoo about deathwatch? What the heck is deathwatch, anyway?”
“Actually, you are very familiar with deathwatch; you just do not realize it.” I respond gently, knowing that my friend is going to struggle terribly with this reality. “You read about it every year on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. You have read and listened about it every year as the Passion of Jesus Christ is observed and remembered in our church services.”
“For instance …?”
“Take the Gospel according to Matthew. Jesus goes with His disciples, after the Last Supper, to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. He knows Judas has betrayed Him and has gone to fetch the men that will turn Him over for execution. Scripture tells us that:
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’
He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled.
Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me’ (Matthew 26:36-38).2
“That sorrow to the point of death and the request that someone who cares about Him be there with Him to keep watch with Him, that is Jesus’ deathwatch. That is His request to be accompanied by those who love Him as he prepares to face His execution.
“But, deathwatch is hard and Jesus’ disciples passed out. Matthew does not tell us why they passed out, but the disciples fell asleep. Maybe it is because they had just eaten a large meal and were tired or because those who watch with the condemned also experience tremendous emotions of turmoil and anguish. We do not know from Matthew. But we do know Jesus’ response to their failure:
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. ‘Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?’ he asked Peter. ‘Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ (Matthew 26:40-41).
“Then, He went away and prayed again, but His friends were simply not up to the task. He found them asleep, just as before. So, He went aside and prayed a third time by Himself.
Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near….’ (Matthew 26:45)
“The author of the Gospel of Luke, believed to be a physician, actually records in detail physical suffering that documents the depth of Jesus’ emotional and physical trauma during His deathwatch:
And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow.
‘Why are you sleeping?’ he asked them. ‘Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.’ (Luke 22:44-46)
“The process of sweating blood, hematohidrosis, is believed to occur under stress so acute that the capillaries rupture and release blood into the sweat glands, thus causing the suffering person to sweat water mingled with blood. That is the depth of Jesus’ suffering on His deathwatch.
“And Luke, who as a physician may have been familiar with the symptoms of this secondary trauma, tells us of the inability of the disciples to keep from passing out. Based on modern medicine, we know that may have been because of their emotional trauma at Jesus’ suffering. That is deathwatch then and now. It has not changed much.”
“How dare you blaspheme Christ by comparing His agony in the Garden with the death house plight of some child rapist, or cop-killer, or a mass murderer…” my church friend is almost apoplectic with rage. “How dare you! Who do you think you are?”
“It is not my idea,” I explain holding up both hands palms open as though surrendering to an inexorable force. “It is not my idea. It is His.”
“Who? Whose idea? The criminal’s idea?”
“No. Jesus. It is Jesus’ idea.”
“What in Heaven’s name are you talking about? Where do you get this stuff?”
“From Jesus. He was very clear that when I am on deathwatch with one of the least of His brothers, I am on deathwatch with Him — just like the disciples were in Gethsemane. He said:
‘I was in prison and you came to visit me.… I tell you the truth … whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’ (Matthew 25:36-40).
“No. No. No.” my friend is shaking with rage. “Jesus was only talking about innocent people in prison. He never meant that we should visit guilty people in prison.”
“Check your Bible, my friend. Jesus never qualified His statement to only innocent people in prison. In fact, Pope John Paul i , when he was Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice, made this very point when he described visiting the so-called Monster of Marsala in an Italian prison. In describing his pastoral visit to the hated and despised inmate who had brutally killed three little girls, the Cardinal-future-Pope said:
If I go to visit him, I cannot call him ‘the Monster,’ but will have to treat him as if he were Christ, even if he is guilty. ‘Every time you visit a prisoner, you come to visit Me!’ Love of my neighbor, however much he hurts me, even though he may be my enemy, does even this. … This is what it truly means to be Christian and to practice fraternity.3
My dear friend is sputtering in response. No words form in his forceful gasp of raw emotion. I feel a need to distance myself from my answer.
“It is not my idea, man.” My hands make a patting motion, as if to assuage my friend’s anger by damping it down. “It is Jesus’ idea. And because I am a Christian, whatever He says goes.”
My friend seems to intuit the enormity of this assignment. We stare at each other sighing with drooped heads as he barely whispers, “Nothing is impossible with God… right?”
“That’s what God’s Word says.”
But I impulsively continue to clarify that this task is not of my making: “Even if it’s not impossible, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.... or that anybody else will think it’s a good idea.”
By Dale S. Recinella
1 A Catholic Correctional Chaplain for Florida’s Death Row
2 Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan bible Publishers.
3 Bishop Robert J. Baker and Father Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R., When Did We See You, Lord? (Huntington, in : Our Sunday Visitor, 2005), 165.