By John Knebels
Special to The CS&T
VILLANOVA – A crowded fieldhouse. A party of five. A one-on-one interview.
Oprah Winfrey. Larry King Live. 60 Minutes. The check-out clerk at the neighborhood supermarket.
No matter where she finds herself, and no matter whom she finds herself with, Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., is ready, willing and able to talk about the horrors of capital punishment.
Most people know Sister Helen because of “Dead Man Walking,” a non-fiction book she wrote in 1993 that, after being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, became a major motion picture featuring Hollywood stars Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen and Sean Penn as death row inmate Patrick Sonnier.
From that point on, Sister Helen’s passion to ignite a nationwide debate concerning the act by the state of killing another human being – legal in the United States – has not abated.
A native of Louisiana, Sister Helen was the featured speaker at Villanova University on March 24 at Jake Nevins Fieldhouse; one day earlier, she had spoken at LaSalle University. After being introduced by Curtis McCarty, a man who had spent two decades on death row for a crime for which he was ultimately exonerated, Sister Helen wasted no time communicating her belief that the death penalty in this country is abhorrent.
“When we have a ‘wake up story,’ it’s all about grace,” said Sister Helen, 59. “I didn’t know a lot about the death penalty, and I didn’t seek controversy. But God is sneaky. It doesn’t matter how old we are when we wake up, it’s what we do after we wake up.”
After she “woke up,” Sister Helen decided that spending time with convicted criminals in their most intense hours of need would become a central aspect of her vocation. Meanwhile, she educated herself by talking with experts in the field of criminal law.
In her 2005 book “The Death of the Innocents,” Sister Helen offers an eyewitness account of wrongful executions.
“There is no question that innocent people have been put to death,” she said. “That’s a whole other issue. But the fact that an innocent person can die for a crime he or she had nothing to do with should anger us to no end. If you eliminate the death penalty, no innocent person can ever be executed.”
When a criminal is executed, the official cause of death is listed as “legalized homicide.”
“Just think about those words,” said Sister Helen. “Just think about the hypocrisy.”
For Catholics who struggle to find compassion for people who have committed heinous crimes, Sister Helen said she completely understands their emotional dilemma.
She recommends contemplating the two-millennia-old question – what would Jesus do?
“If the Gospel of Jesus means anything,” she said, “it’s that we are worth more than our worst acts.”
Anthony Alessandrine and Sheena Dawkins were among a group of 11 students from a Gwynedd-Mercy College night class that attended the event at Villanova. Both are graduates of West Catholic High School and both emerged spiritually moved by Sister Helen’s words.
“She spoke from the heart and from experience,” Alessandrine said. “She has lived a fascinating life. I admire how hard she works in getting out the message.”
“She’s impressive,” Dawkins said. “She’s a powerful speaker. She gives you something to think about. I’m glad I came.”
Hours earlier, Sister Helen sat down for a private interview and described her collective experiences of being a spiritual counselor for several death row inmates as “surreal.” Asked if she gets tired of always being asked about “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen slowly shook her head.
“I never get tired of it because it opens up a conversation,” she said. “It challenges the ambivalence. And that is where the outrage lies. It’s when we don’t question the death penalty; it’s when politicians just look the other way; it’s when we don’t look at the statistics and recognize that 80 percent of these cases are in the South, and that there is racial injustice staring us right in the face but ignored.”
Sister Helen said a major problem among the country’s Catholic population is a misunderstanding that the Catholic Church recognizes the state’s right to employ the death penalty in cases that are the “gravest of the grave.”
“In 1999, our Pope (the late John Paul II) finally said what everyone needed to hear and to understand,” said Sister Helen. “He put capital punishment up there with every other pro-life issue and condemned the action as absolutely unacceptable regardless of the person or crime.
“So when people argue that the Church allows capital punishment in the gravest cases that simply is not accurate. It is not part of our Catechism. It is equal to abortion. The Pope said it. He taught it. It says all we need to understand regarding the morality of executing someone.”
Sister Helen said although traveling all over the country can lead to fatigue she doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon.
“God works with us in our own timing,” she said. “Right now, I’m able to be a voice. Hopefully, we’ll all be a voice together and eliminate the death penalty altogether.”
John Knebels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.