Sr. Prejean defends human dignity

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Sr. Helen Prejean nearly filled every seat in St. Francis Xavier College Church when presenting “Dead Man Walking – The Journey Continues,” on Wednesday, March 28, at 7 p.m.

Prejean, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, has led the Catholic Church’s strong opposition to the death penalty and travels around the world urging national dialogue about the issue.

Prejean opened by explaining how she became involved in the pro-life cause. After teaching religion for a brief time, Prejean moved to the St. Thomas Housing Project. Under the guidance of Marie Augusta Neal, Prejean recalls that she “woke up to the gospel of justice.”

Prejean felt called, she said, to work at Hope House in New Orleans. She stayed there for three years from 1984 to 1986. Prejean’s friend at the Louisiana Coalition asked if she would be interested in writing a letter to a death row inmate. At the time, she had no comprehension of the breadth of what she agreed to, Prejean said.

Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, Prejean’s first book, tells the story of her correspondence with and role as the spiritual advisor to Patrick Sonnier, a death row inmate whose eventual execution Prejean witnessed.

Prejean said that when she met Sonnier in person for the first time, realizing his humanity was “a moment of grace.”

Years later, when Prejean accompanied Sonnier to his death, she told him, “You are not going to die without seeing one loving face.”

From then on, Prejean felt obligated to preach against the death penalty.

“I was the witness, I had to tell the story,”  Prejean said.

Since Sonnier’s execution, Prejean has seen five other men to their deaths.

In reply to the fact that horrible crimes were in fact committed, Prejean calls on forgiveness.

“We are all worth more than the worst things in our lives,” Prejean said.

The moving response to Prejean’s first book resulted in its transformation into a movie starring Susan Sarandon. It also was reworked into an opera and school play.

She wrote a second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, after discovering that many of the men she advised on death row were not guilty. At least 140 individuals executed in the United States were wrongly convicted.

Prejean is working on her third book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey. She explained that it is a prequel to Dead Man Walking, backtracking through the spiritual awakening that led to the experiences discussed in her first book.

Today, Prejean divides her time between speaking to the public about the death penalty and counseling death row prisoners.

Prejean told her audience at College Church that everyone there was privileged: the students and the teachers at SLU. The reason, Prejean said, is to give; that is what God needs.

“She was captivating and funny. It was a really insightful and challenging talk about how the death penalty really is a pro-life issue,” Junior Josh Pazderka said.

Prejean’s dialogue with Pope John Paul II in 1999 inspired him to group the death penalty with other pro-life issues and change the catechism. This has since made the Catholic Church a key opponent of the death penalty.

“The death penalty is about us and how we shall respond,” Prejean said. “To uphold the dignity of all life —guilty and not guilty — that is the challenge.”