They say joyfulness is a mark of sanctity. There are no grumpy saints. My husband can verify that by that standard, I have a ways to go toward sainthood.
On the other hand, Sister Helen Prejean passes that criterion with flying colors. I had the honor of being with Sister Prejean for two and a half days recently as she went around rural Nebraska talking about her life experiences with justice, and in particular, with the death penalty. A remarkably energetic 74-year-old, the author of “Dead Man Walking” is on a mission.
She knows that audiences relate well to her Southern storyteller manner, and she knows she brings a definite sense of moral authority into a room with her. People’s hearts are changed when they hear Helen Prejean talk. And she is comfortable knowing she is doing the work to which she is gifted and called.
“I only have this one life to live,” she reminded us on one stretch of lonely highway. And live it with vigor she does. From the deeply personal experiences she shared with audiences, to the late-night glass of wine she shared with those of us sponsoring her, Sister Prejean presented an untiring “joie de vivre.”
Nebraska is very close to repealing the death penalty. This year, the majority of the 49 senators in our one-house legislature favored repeal. But our opponents launched a filibuster that prevented a floor vote. Our hopes are that the next session, which convenes in January, will lead to success. Nebraskans are too good for this failed system, this method of killing to prove killing is wrong. They’re better than that. We all are.
It was with this in mind that we called Sister Prejean’s office. Normally, this enormously sought-after speaker’s schedule is booked a year in advance. We approached with trepidation in late summer, saying, “We really need you this fall. We’re very close to repeal.”
To our delight, she found a way to weave two evenings of speaking into her nonstop travel. We are making a big rural push this fall, and she told us later that she’d never seen so many cornfields.
After one presentation, a teacher at a community college asked Sister Prejean if she would speak to her class the next day before moving on to her next scheduled engagement. To my amazement, she agreed. So off we went, after Sister Prejean lunched with a legislator, to a community college class where teachers and administrators crowded in to see the woman who was portrayed by Susan Sarandon in a movie.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, our recent popes, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops all remind us that repeal is a pro-life Catholic issue. Every human life deserves dignity, no matter what sins we have committed, and we are all sinners before a merciful God. It’s clear in Nebraska that that message is resonating with Catholics. Sister Prejean said we didn’t deserve a death penalty here, and I know she’s right.
She related that when inmate Elmo Patrick Sonnier, a man for whom she was a spiritual director on death row, was executed, she told him to keep his eyes on her because she would be the face of Christ for him. That reminded me of the words to a David Haas hymn: “We are the presence of God. That is our call.”
It’s an audacious idea. We are called to be the presence of God, called to be his hands on this earth as St. Teresa of Avila said. And, as Sister Prejean amply illustrated, that presence is joyful.