Be Merciful As Your Heavenly Father Is Merciful

17 March 2023

On the occasion of the 10th year of the Holy Father’s Pontificate, Dale S. Recinella, who ministers to inmates on Death Row in Florida, reflects on mercy, a key theme of the papacy. Before becoming a “lay chaplain”, Mr Recinella worked as a Wall Street Finance Lawyer.

I remember the day. I will never forget the moment the news came pouring over my car radio. It was about 25 years ago at this time.

For a week the entire Jacksonville area (Northeast Florida) had been united in a massive search for an eight-year-old girl named Maddie Clifton. She had been out of her parents’ sight for only fifteen minutes. She had vanished into thin air. In her own neighborhood. Within steps of her own house. It was every loving parent’s worst nightmare.

Northeast Florida was covered with purple ribbons, the symbol of unity in the effort to find this beautiful little girl. One could feel the entire area praying with a single heart, breathing with a common breath, hoping with a shared faith.

I was driving to the death row prison on Highway 121 south. The spot in my drive to the prison when Sheriff Nat Glover announced a press conference updating the public on Maddie’s case was about halfway between Mudlake Road and the tri-county dump site, near the Baker-Union County line. My radio was on.

Probably almost a million people were glued to their radio or their television right then, listening with one ear in the shadows of a shared fear. Sheriff Glover began in a low and forced gravely voice. We could all feel the pain he was stifling. Grief descended like a pall on northeast Florida.

Maddie’s body had been found. She had been murdered by the fourteen-year-old boy across the street. Her lifeless body was discovered hidden underneath his waterbed.

Tears welled from my eyes as my nails dug into the steering wheel. I could feel the scream and the rage in my spirit. It seemed to be my part of the shared agony wrenching our entire community.

Once in the prison parking lot, I seriously contemplated just turning around and going back home. What was the point? That morning, it seemed beyond my power to walk the distance to death row and pass out communion. That morning, it seemed beyond my strength or my ability to face men who had done such horrible things to others’ loved ones and to see the image of God in them.

But many years ago, a priest had taught me a prayer that was the antidote for such a perilous moment. “Jesus, move my feet.”

I said it. Jesus did it. And He carried me inside to minister to His children.

In the 25 years that have passed since my spiritual crisis in the death row parking lot, there has been a great deal of media coverage about the case. The young man who committed the crime was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

The local press pandered the expected, dehumanizing him with adjectives like “monster” and disseminating quotes from local folks lamenting that the child murderer could not be “fried.” Just like me, many others had no strength in themselves to deal with such horrendous evil.

But through it all, one press item struck me the most, challenged me, humbled me more than any other. It was a letter to the editor of the local paper written by the aunt and uncle of the murdered 8-year old girl after the trial of the young man.

“Thank God that Joshua Phillips was too young by law for the death penalty…. His mother states he is already a Christian…. We pray this is so and that [his] eternity is secure in God…. As for God being love, ‘administering justice’ while ‘willing to forgive,’ few have had the awful privilege of experiencing and coming to a fuller understanding of those attributes than our family.”

Our community members with the greatest claim to rage and vengeance had chosen to yield to God’s mercy. Evil had been vanquished. All of us who dared to look glimpsed the Light of the kingdom of God breaking in, overcoming evil by the doing of good.

By Dale S. Recinella