" When you have a direct chance to dialogue with the Pope, you can speak your conscience – that sacred place where God and the soul meet. "
After four decades of ministering to death row inmates St. Joseph of Medaille Sister Helen Prejean has seen much change in the criminal justice system and the Church regarding capital punishment. However, she reminded people during a March 25 virtual presentation, the dialogue must continue.

“We’re moving along in our understanding [of the death penalty],” Sister Helen said. “The Church [includes] people of God who go into prisons and witness [and] come out changed.”

Related Video: Watch Sister Helen's Presentation

Sister Helen, who began advocating for death row inmates in 1982, spoke for the Center for FaithJustice’s online event at the invitation of the Magdalene Circle, which is a Center for FaithJustice faith-based women’s philanthropy group.

“Sister has been doing ‘faith justice’ for a long time,” said CFJ president and organizer Stephanie Peddicord. “When in July 2020 the government resumed federal executions, Sister Helen was everywhere, calling on us to pray. … [She] was tireless and unrelenting, reminding us to remember those in prison, with overcrowding and lack of social distancing, advocating for health care for prisoners and employees.”

Seismic Change

The prayers appear to have been working. On March 24, after 1,390 executions going back more than 400 years, Virginia became the first southern state to abolish the death penalty. After the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 113 people subsequently died by capital punishment in the state. However, no jury in Virginia has delivered a death sentence since 2011, and no one has been executed by the state since 2017.

“Virginia happened because a whole lot of people worked for years,” Sister Helen emphasized, and pointed to activist Marie Deans, an anti-death penalty advocate in South Carolina and Virginia who began in 1982 to help find attorneys for men facing execution without legal representation.

Not only is the tide turning in secular public opinion, Sister Helen noted, so is the position of the Catholic Church. She reflected on one man she journeyed with through the criminal justice system – Joseph O’Dell, who was convicted of murder but whose guilt was still in question when he was executed in 1997. O’Dell was given a funeral in Italy, where a group of 10,000 people had petitioned for O’Dell’s release after his case gained worldwide attention. There, Sister Helen had the opportunity to speak to then-Pope John Paul II about capital punishment.

“When you have a direct chance to dialogue with the Pope, you can speak your conscience – that sacred place where God and the soul meet,” said Sister Helen. Subsequently in 1999, Pope John Paul II appealed for a consensus to end the death penalty on the grounds that it was “both cruel and unnecessary,” and that a criminal offender should be offered “an incentive and help to change his or her behavior and be rehabilitated.”

Pope Francis went further in August 2018, approving a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church to state that the Church teaches “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

“We have a divine spark in us, to be able to love deeper – we can always change,” Sister Helen said. “Pope Francis’ point was, when you decide the end of someone’s life, how do you know that they can’t be transformed – how do you know God is done with that life?”

‘River of Fire’

In her 2019 book, “River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey,” Sister Helen spoke about her evolution toward social justice in prisons, and how her perspective was transformed.

“How I parachute into these things, I don’t know – the Holy Spirit pulls the strings,” she said. “‘River of Fire’ was about awakening to the Gospel. I was 40 years old when I ‘got it’ – I had to break out of my spiritual cocoon and thinking that ‘I’m above all this political stuff’ and that ‘these problems are too big for any of us – I’ll just pray.’ I didn’t understand about justice.”

Despite being comfortable in her spiritual life, Sister Helen’s mind was changed on a retreat.

“We can’t just tell people ‘God loves you’; we can’t stop there,” Sister Helen said. “If it doesn’t connect people in community to strive for justice, it’s a privatized faith.”

Inspired by that wake-up call, Sister Helen went to live in the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans, La., and began working at Hope House, a Catholic social concerns ministry. Little did she know that an invitation to write letters to a death row inmate, Patrick Sonnier, would lead to her being his spiritual advocate and eventual witness to his execution.

Related Video: Watch Sister Helen's presentation

In 1982, Sister Helen began working with Sonnier, a convicted killer of two teenagers who was sentenced to death in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. She admits to making a mistake by avoiding the victims’ families at first, focusing solely on the prisoner, because “I was scared.” But eventually she did talk to families and spent time praying the Rosary with them.

She came to know both Sonnier and the families of the victims, as well as the men assigned to executions in the prison, learning all sides of the story. That story and others were featured in Sister Helen’s first book, “Dead Man Walking,” in 1993, on which the 1995 movie by the same title was based. Sonnier was the first of six death row inmates she has accompanied thus far.

“He is suffering terribly,” Sister Helen said of one inmate she is currently advising, Manuel Ortiz from El Salvador. “He is going on 30 years on death row, and [I believe] he is innocent. To see the raw power, how abused it is, and the large number of mistakes – we need to end it. Hopefully Catholics wake up and get involved.”

Audience Response

The FaithJustice event is one way that Sister Helen strives to raise awareness.  It gives her an opportunity to speak to groups made up of people of all ages and walks of life. In the CFJ presentation, one 13-year-old attendee asked Sister Helen how one can know if he or she has the courage to do the sorts of things she has done.

“You don’t know – you just do it,” Sister Helen returned. “Courage is grace under pressure. We care about something bigger than ourselves, and it can help us overcome our fear … I was scared – but you step into the grace of it, and God’s grace comes up to us.”

Another participant wanted to know if the restorative justice movement, or rehabilitation, would have a role in ending the death penalty.

“We have been down this track of ‘punish people and make them suffer,’” Sister Helen replied. “Restorative justice is the way. The least amount of education in the prison system makes a huge difference. As for ending the death penalty – help us in our states, especially in the deep south,” she suggested, asking people to make themselves heard.

When asked what retirement looks like for Sister Helen, now 80, she said, “First you get tired, then you get retired, then you get tireder … I don’t know. I know I can write, I can talk as long as God gives me that, and I’m going to raise my voice where I can.”