Sister Helen brings Christ to "dead men walking"
She calls it annunciation – the invitation from God to bring Christ into the world. One of Sister Helen Prejean’s annunciations came as she meditated on the daily reading from Matthew 25: 36 – “I was in prison and you came to me.” Those simple words set her on a journey through Louisiana’s Death Row and launched her into the national spotlight as an activist, author and spiritual guide to inmates condemned to die.
“I always thought God called us to be nice,” Sister Helen explains. “We must be nice to our families, nice to our neighbors, even nice to those who do us harm. I was a young nun in the order of Sisters of St. Joseph teaching in New Orleans when someone invited me to become a prisoner pen pal. I thought it would be a nice thing to do, so I began exchanging letters with Patrick Sonnier on Death Row.
“It seems silly now, but I was surprised at his humanness. All the media stories and details of death row inmates’ crimes made me expect a monster. Instead, I found myself exchanging letters with a man – a lonely man in great need. It was his humanness and his need that made me come to him.
“I remember my first visit, walking through endless hallways, hearing gates and doors clang shut behind me as we moved deeper into the prison. I was fighting back the urge to turn and run away when the guard finally opened that last door, and Patrick looked up in wonder. He said, ‘You came. Sister, you came.’
“That was the moment I realized God doesn’t just call us to be nice. God calls us to make annunciations incarnations – to bring Christ into our humanness. It was like a current from a lightning bolt and it set me on fire.
“All of us get annunciations from God all the time. They are invitations that most often we don’t acknowledge or recognize because we’re too busy or too scared. But invitations from God always match our desires. Whether we recognize it or not, each of us has a deep and sacred call to be in communion with God – a yearning for all loves and experiences of life to come together.
“Like a lightning bolt, it looks like it strikes from above. Yet if you talk to anyone who’s been near a lightning strike, they will tell you they could feel the electricity flowing around them an instant before the bolt struck. Scientists actually have pictures showing fingers of electricity reaching up from the ground to meet the bolt extending from the sky.
“I answered my annunciation by becoming Patrick’s spiritual advisor and accompanying him to his execution. I was often amazed by his inherent dignity and moved by his transformation as he faced death.
“I walked with him as, shackled, he shuffled down the hallway to the electric chair. Moving down that long corridor, he said, ‘Sister, pray that the Lord will put strength in my legs to carry me to the end.’ Of course, he made it. After I witnessed his execution, I walked out and threw up.
“I saw the suffering and I let myself feel it ... I saw the injustice and was compelled to do something about it. I changed from being a nun who only prayed for the suffering world to a woman with my sleeves rolled up, living my prayer.
“I wrote Dead Man Walking about that journey with Patrick, and I have accompanied six convicted criminals to their deaths. Being with these human beings in the last hours of life, I saw courage, faith in God, remorse, sorrow. I’ve seen what turning your life over to God really is.
“As each was being killed, I told him to look at me. I wanted them to see a loving face when they died. I wanted my face to remind them that they, and every one of us, are worth more than our most terrible acts. I wanted them to know that God has a heart so wide, we can’t even imagine it!
“During his visit to St. Louis in 1999, Pope John Paul II grouped the death penalty with pro-life issues in the Catholic Church. He called us to be ‘unconditionally pro-life,’ saying ‘the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.’
“I have learned about the evil these men did by talking with their victims’ families and with other victims in support groups I founded in New Orleans. I’ve learned just how alone many of them feel. The murder of their loved one is so horrible and their pain so great that most people stay away. In a way, they are also imprisoned. These victims also need people to visit, to listen and to care. Imprisoned or free, the best gift we ever give each other is our presence.
“My annunciation compels me to draw attention to these truths we try to avoid by literally and figuratively locking them away. Execution is a secret ritual done behind prison walls, and I am a witness to it. I’ve got to tell the story.
“In my writings and speaking, I try to tell stories about the struggle for dignity, the isolation and the suffering that goes on in our prisons behind locked doors. It took me until my mid-40s to realize that we all need to be aware. As long as suffering is invisible, our capacity for empathy is low, but I see reason to hope.
“In 1996, 78 percent of Americans supported the death penalty and 80 percent of American Catholics supported it. In 2011, 64 percent of the US public supported the death penalty and just 59 percent of U.S. Catholics supported it. So we’re making progress.
“The American people are good people, just disconnected. Connecting them with the stories and reminding them of the value and dignity of each human life, I make my annunciation incarnate.”
To learn more about how you can help, visit the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty www.ncadp.org/ or the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty at catholicsmobilizing.org/. See more of Sister Helen’s speeches and interviews at www.sisterhelen.org/. On her website, you can also purchase copies of her books, Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents. Watch also for Sister Helen’s soon-to-be-released book, River of Fire, that chronicles her spiritual journey to Death Row.