A young man sat on death row in a Lousiana prison for the murder of two teenagers. He received a letter from an unexpected person: a Catholic nun. They became pen pals, and eventually met in person. She became his spiritual advisor, accompanying him until his execution in 1984.
The Catholic nun in this story is Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ. She walked alongside Patrick Sonnier for two years while he awaited execution. Through this relationship with Patrick, Sister Helen said she received “an awakening” to God’s presence in those on the margins: the hungry, the stranger, and even the imprisoned.
After Patrick’s execution, Sister Helen went on to spiritually advise and accompany many more people on death row. Her ministry gained national and international attention in 1993, when she wrote Dead Man Walking. The book told the story of how she learned to hold at the same time the needs of victims and the dignity and spirituality of those who are guilty and condemned to death. The book later became a movie and an opera, more widely spreading her conviction that the death penalty is immoral.
Sister Helen continues to impact the way individuals, states, nations, and faith communities think about the death penalty. Since her book was published, several states (including Delaware, Maryland and Illinois) have abolished the death penalty.
Most recently, Pope Francis affirmed the dignity of all persons, even criminals, and to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.
It’s easy to think of someone like Sister Helen Prejean as a hero, a champion. Yet she has a simple response to these accolades: she says it’s not about her. Decade after decade, she is faithful to that original awakening. She is fueled for ministry by personal prayer and the sacraments, her community life, and a passion for justice.
“Jesus embraces both the victims and the perpetrators,” Sister Helen says. “Both have dignity, both need to be heard, accompanied and healed.” Justice can proceed properly for criminals when we uphold their dignity. Yes, there needs to be consequences and reparation for wrongdoing, but not at the expense of human dignity.
Sister Helen Prejean is a model for us: she shows us how to serve the least of these and uphold human dignity in all circumstances.