Fighting for life: Sr. Helen Prejean and the death penalty

By Catherine Loftus “Are people worth more than the worst thing they have done?” This is what Sr. Helen Prejean of the Congregation of St. Joseph challenged students at the University of Michigan to ponder while speaking on campus in November about her calling to advocate against the death penalty.

Sr. Helen Prejean

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“Are people worth more than the worst thing they have done?” This is what Sr. Helen Prejean of the Congregation of St. Joseph challenged students at the University of Michigan to ponder while speaking on campus in November about her calling to advocate against the death penalty.

The death penalty is a sensitive topic, and an often-forgotten pro-life issue. For many, the innocent deserve life, but what about people who are guilty? Do those who have committed unspeakable crimes deserve life? Some would argue that they deserve the ultimate punishment, death, but after seeing a fellow human being killed before her eyes, Prejean was inspired to challenge the system.

After her experience as a spiritual advisor to an inmate on death row, she chose to advocate against this “secret ritual” of killing. When asked why she became so passionate about this issue, she explained how the death penalty was “something the American people were never going to be close to.” After witnessing a man executed, she was “on fire” and decided to spread a message of love, not hatred, to prisoners on death row.

Her story has become the subject of movies (including the Academy Award-winning Dead Man Walking, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn), books, and even an opera, all urging people to find it in their hearts to forgive even the most horrendous of crimes. She has inspired national debate on the death penalty and helped drive the Catholic Church’s opposition to state executions. Prejean divides her time between educating citizens about the death penalty and counseling death row prisoners, which has included accompanying six men to their deaths. She also travels around the world giving talks about her ministry.

Seeing her speak so eloquently and passionately about this issue, it is easy to assume that the journey toward forgiveness was easy, but she assured the crowd that there were many times when she felt unsure and overwhelmed. She acknowledged that she is asking families to pardon the killers of their loved ones, asking them to forgive under the most extreme of difficult circumstances. Not everyone agrees with her views or respects her role in the process, but she knows that social justice is a right of every person and the only way to stop the cycle of violence.

Prejean said, “Justice is different than charity.” Many strive for social justice, but the result is charity. While there is a time and a place for charity, it does not address the root of social problems. We cannot create social justice by simply doing charitable acts, she said, and we most certainly cannot fix society by accepting institutionalized violence.

Prejean’s challenge is this: If this is to be a society where people are treated as equals and social justice reigns, don’t we need to value every human life, even those lives that have hurt us? Jesus commands us to turn the other cheek and love our neighbors as ourselves. This forgiveness is not easy, but it is necessary to transform our culture into one of life over death. While there needs to be consequences for violence, death is not up to anyone but God to decide.
Catherine Loftus, a graduate of St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, is currently a student at the University of Michigan.


2014 © TrueQuest Communications

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