by Daniel P. Smith
Sr. Helen Prejean’s words come fast, carrying the sharp Louisiana twang engrained in her DNA and fueled by a purpose that rumbles in her soul.
A complex and often controversial figure as one of the nation’s foremost critics of the death penalty, Sr. Prejean first entered the nation’s consciousness in 1994. That’s when her first book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, emerged as a New York Times bestseller, earning her a Pulitzer Prize nomination and sparking a feature-length film in which Susan Sarandon played Sr. Prejean. A member of the Congregation of St. Joseph since 1957, formerly the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, the 80-year-old Sr. Prejean discussed with Catholic Digest her efforts to abolish capital punishment and the spirituality that guides her.
When Sr. Prejean joined the convent at age 18 in 1957, she says the only thing expected of a nun was obedience. Vatican II, however, opened the door for sisters such as herself to more deeply consider their ministry. “We all got to look more closely at the suffering world and our conscience.”
Working at the St. Thomas housing projects in New Orleans, Sr. Prejean sensed an intensifying call — “deeper obedience,” she terms it — to justice. In particular, she noticed inequities in education and criminal justice begging for attention. “When you’re opened up to what the world calls, you see the need and you go.”
A self-described “slow learner,” Sr. Prejean said she had to understand in- equities firsthand to recognize what the Lord was calling her to do. “It took me 40 blooming years to wake up to the Gospel as a gospel of justice.”
When a colleague asked Sr. Prejean if she might become a pen pal to a death row inmate, Sr. Prejean confesses she held little knowledge about the death penalty. “I hadn’t even noticed it had been put back by the Supreme Court.” Being an English major, Sr. Prejean thought, Sure, I could write some letters.
Recounting that colleague’s invitation today, she calls it the work of “sneaky Jesus.” “If I had known when I wrote that first letter all that was going to happen— from the witnessing of his execution to being out on the road to help awaken people about the death penalty — then I don’t know that I could’ve done it. But the thing I know about grace is that it comes to us in the mo- ment, it rises within us, and as grace unfurled in- side me, I had the courage and strength to do what I needed to do.” Beginning in 1982, Sr. Prejean began exchanging letters with Patrick Sonnier, a Louisiana man on death row for the murder of two teenagers. “My boat got into this current of the river, and it ended up being a waterfall.”
After months of exchanging letters with Sonnier, Sr. Prejean visited him in prison — albeit hesitantly. That visit served as an awakening. “When I looked into his eyes, and it was a great grace that’s never left me, I remember thinking, He’s a human being. He was a son of God. All of us are worth more than our worst act. That’s part of what it is to have the dignity of being a human being.”
“All of us are worth more than our worst act”
Even so, Sr. Prejean says reconciling Sonnier’s acts with his humanity was her “greatest moral struggle.” After all, Sr. Prejean had nieces and nephews and a profound respect for life. “But believing in Jesus and believing we are all children of God, I realized [that] someone’s human dignity doesn’t have conditions on it.”
As Sonnier’s spiritual adviser, Sr. Prejean personally witnessed his electrocution in 1984. Exiting the prison that day, she vomited at the gates. “I came out of that execution chamber and knew that I was one of the few witnesses to a secret ritual, and my job was to help people wake up about this.”
Sr. Prejean’s efforts with Sonnier ignited criticism — and earnest reflection. She began imagining Jesus on the cross: one arm representing the perpetrator and the other symbolizing the victims’ families.
While working with Sonnier, Sr. Prejean says she made a grave mistake in not reaching out to the victims’ families to express sorrow or offer her support. “It was a call to conversion, a call to reach out to victims and acknowledge their struggles.”
Now serving as the spiritual adviser to her seventh man on death row, Sr. Prejean reaches out to families with sincerity and prayer. Most have rejected her. “Still, it’s important I bring both arms of the cross.”
Sr. Prejean focuses her advocacy on education, aiming to bring the American public close to something few will ever witness. Through her writings, interviews, and dozens of talks each year — at churches, universities, and the like — Sr. Prejean tells the stories of perpetrators and victims. “The American people don’t fully realize what’s going on here. They just buy into this, but it’s not a deep soul thing, and if somebody could bring them close, they’re going to get it. That’s our work today: to educate the people, to help the people of conscience, the people in the pews, get it.”
Death penalty advocates tout the death penalty as the defense of society. Sr. Prejean disagrees and says that’s why prisons exist. “This isn’t about skirting accountability, as someone like Patrick Sonnier was going to be in prison the rest of his life. Rendering them to prisons is the defense of society.” Rather, the death penalty empowers government bodies to label some crimes so terrible that only the death of the perpetrator delivers true justice. “God’s grace can work on people, and who are we to decide if God is finished with a person? Who are we to be the discerners? Once a life is taken, it can never be restored. That’s God. God gives us life.”
Sr. Prejean calls the death penalty a prolife issue, though an admittedly controversial one that fails to rally support like abortion or even euthanasia. “If we’re not working to stop [the death penalty], then we’re complicit in it. Even those among us who have committed a serious crime have dignity.”
In 1997, Sr. Prejean took her message to St. John Paul II. In a letter, one she knows was personally delivered into his hands, Sr. Prejean reminded him that every life is holy, every life has dignity from womb to tomb.
“I’ve noticed in the Catholic Catechism that whenever we talk about the dignity of life, it’s always about innocent life. But when I’m walking with a man to execution and he’s shackled hand and foot, he’s going to be strapped down and killed, and he turns to me and says, ‘Sister, please pray that God holds up my legs,’ Your Holiness, where is the dignity in this death? Can you help the Church recognize the dignity, not only of the innocent, but even of the guilty?” Watching victims’ families over the years, Sr. Prejean has become even more convinced of the death penalty’s waywardness. “They wait 10 years, 15 years, some- times 20 years for this so-called justice, to witness the death of someone who killed their loved one. And more and more, I’ve come to believe that it simply re-victimizes them. It makes us wait for something — and what can it really do? Can committing another to death really heal the human heart?”
When New Jersey repealed the death penalty in 2007, Sr. Prejean says 62 murdered victims’ families testified be- fore the legislature and spoke against the death penalty. “They said, ‘Don’t kill for us.’ They recognized that answering violence with violence didn’t heal, and they wanted to move on.”
Though Sr. Prejean’s advocacy has earned her notoriety, she is, above all, focused on awakening hearts and minds. “I’m a servant of this story, and I pray of- ten: ‘Jesus, don’t let me get in the way of the story.’ I have witnessed six human beings being taken and killed in front of my eyes. I believe in their dignity. It’s a great grace to have awakened, to recognize that every human being is a child of God no matter what they’ve done.”
The Church revisits its teaching on capital punishment
The Vatican announced on Aug. 2, 2018, that Pope Francis had revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching about capital punishment.
While the death penalty “was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good,” the revised teaching noted that today there is an increasing awareness that human dignity remains even after the commission of serious crimes. As a result, Church teaching rendered the death penalty “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” and it said the Church would work for its world- wide abolition.
“It took 1,600 years for the Catholic Church to arrive at a position of principled opposition no matter what,” Sr. Helen Prejean says. “But you have a long journey of growing, and we are a human Church. We have to see that very human element in the Church that grows in consciousness as the society around it grows.”
To learn more about the revised teaching, visit CDmag.net/30lENEk.
Sr. Prejean responds to federal death penalty resuming
In July, the Department of Justice said it would resume capital punishment for federal inmates, ending a nearly two-decade lapse in using it.
“It is disheartening that the administration has chosen to follow the death road, when the life road calls us to work for justice for all. Admittedly, following the life road demands more from us,” Sr. Helen Prejean posted on Facebook. “It demands that we spurn myth-based thinking; that we educate ourselves on issues, policies, and practice; that we reflect deeply; and that we commit ourselves to justice built from the ground up.”
DANIEL P. SMITH is an award-winning journalist based in Chicago. His work has appeared in consumer and trade publications, and he is also the author of On the Job: Behind the Stars of the Chicago Police Department.