CHICAGO — Work to end the death penalty. That’s what Sister Helen Prejean asked of more than 650 women Nov. 9 at the National Council of Catholic Women’s annual conference held over three days in downtown Chicago.
NCCW consists of more than 4,000 women’s organizations in U.S. parishes and dioceses.
Sister Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille, delivered the event’s keynote address and shared details of how she started working to end the death penalty.
In the early 1980s, the Louisiana Prison Coalition asked the nun to correspond with Patrick Sonnier, a convicted murderer on death row. Sonnier admitted to killing two teenagers with his brother.
Sister Prejean eventually became Sonnier’s spiritual adviser and was present at his death by electrocution. She chronicled her journey in her book “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States,” which later became a movie.
Through her experience with Sonnier and working with the poor, Sister Prejean said, God changed her heart and prompted her, through grace, to look deep into the issues surrounding capital punishment and the legal system.
“Many, many times we don’t know from square one if we got the right person. It’s so broken,” Sister Prejean said of the legal process and the death penalty.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means.”
In today’s society, especially in the United States, “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
Throughout her friendship with Sonnier, Sister Prejean said, she was always “horrified” by his crime and at the same time, “I looked at that man being killed in that chair and I said, ‘That is a man and he is a child of God.’” Perpetrators are human beings who “have a dignity which should not be taken from them,” she said.
She told the Catholic women about how the Holy Spirit is always at work in small ways.
The Lord took her deeper in her journey when she met the parent of one of Sonnier’s victims. The father asked her why she never visited either of the victims’ families, both Catholics, along with visiting Sonnier.
In what Sister Prejean described as emotional and spiritual moments, the father shared with her how he didn’t want to see Sonnier killed and how much pressure the families were under by others to support the death penalty. His relationship with Christ was what helped him not want to see Sonnier put to death, even though he killed his son.
Sister Prejean likened the issues surrounding the death penalty to a cross with the victim’s family on one side and the perpetrator on the other.
“What if we women of compassion reach out to the people on both ends of this cross?” Sister Prejean asked conference attendees.
Even though the Catholic Church is a leader in the effort to end the death penalty in the United States, Sister Prejean said it’s not an easy issue to accept.
“Do we struggle with this? Yes, we do,” she said, adding that the journey to understand the Gospel always comes with some struggles.
Several attendees said they were inspired by Sister Prejean’s talk.
“It’s given me a whole new outlook on the issue,” said Barbara Asfendis, president of the Miami Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women in Florida.
“When we get back to Miami, as Sister Helen asked, we are going to really try to get our members to see her vision and understand it.” The archdiocese has 2,500 women involved in its council, Asfendis said.
Chicago’s Cardinal Francis E. George was the main celebrant of an afternoon Mass Nov. 9. Several dozen priests joined him, along with Bishops James V. Johnston of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo.; Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of Joliet and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago.
The cardinal told the women that our mission as Catholics “is to introduce the world to Jesus Christ.” Knowing who Jesus is gives all of us the courage to be love in action, he said.
The cardinal received a round of applause when he told the women that his mother was a member of Chicago’s Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women. He said her involvement with the group had a big impact in his mother’s faith life.
“We were better Catholics because my mother belonged to the ACCW,” he said.