By Christina Leslie | Correspondent
“Each of us are given grace and called to follow the Gospels in our own lives, not just me because I’m a nun,” Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille Helen Prejean told an overflow audience in the Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft, auditorium Feb.1.
Sister Helen, a 78-year-old Baton Rouge native, held the more than 950 students and guests spellbound for her talk on social justice during the celebration of Catholic Schools Week at the secondary school. The diminutive nun, speaking with an accent that reflected her Cajun roots, described her transformation from a privileged youth, whose father was a Baton Rouge lawyer during the Jim Crow era, to an activist committed to abolishing the death penalty.
“I didn’t think about social justice, for I was born in privilege,” Sister Helen said. “I was blind to it, never saw the pain and suffering. That’s what the culture does. But when we go to Jesus, we wake up. He hits our soul and sparks a fire, what you call conscience.”
That conscience was sparked after the Second Vatican Council. In its wake, she recalled the debate in her order whether to change the ministry’s focus.
“It opened the doors and windows of the Church. It was not just about doctrine, but putting faith into action,” Sister Helen said. “I had thought my job as a Christian and a nun was to pray and God’s job was to handle the problems. I’m just one little person, what can I do?”
While ministering to the impoverished residents of the St. Thomas housing projects in New Orleans, Sister Helen met someone in the Louisiana prison system who asked her to consider writing to an inmate on Angola State Prison’s death row: double murderer Patrick Sonnier.
She recalled, “I was with him two years until he was electrocuted. I was there for him to see a face of love, a face of Christ, and it changed my whole life.”
Sister Helen’s meetings with the inmate and future advocacy to abolish the death penalty led her to write her first book, “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty,” which was published in 1993 and subsequently adapted into a 1995 Academy-award winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Her second book, “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions,” was published in 2004. The religious, who has walked six men to their executions and become staunchly against the death penalty, is working on another book, “River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.”
Discussing the death penalty, which was outlawed in New Jersey in 2007, she admitted, “It’s a struggle. “It’s a human instinct: they kill, then we kill them and it is justice. This is not in the Gospel of Jesus.”
Meetings with bereaved family members of those killed by these inmates, Sister Helen learned a valuable lesson on forgiveness. The father of a murdered child invited her to pray in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, stating, “They killed my boy, but I’m not going to let them kill me.”
“This is how the Gospel of Jesus crashes in, how the grace crashes in at these terrible moments,” Sister Helen said. “He is a hero, because he is the one who taught me how it is possible to be thrown into that kind of fire and find forgiveness. He chose to go the way that Jesus taught him, for if we allow hatred to come over us, we lose, we freeze, we shrivel inside.”
The religious turned back to how Vatican II had redefined the Church “to follow the Gospel in our own lives,” and that Pope Francis, too, has focused his ministry not on the hierarchy of the Church but on the poorest of the poor as Jesus had.
“With God’s grace, love comes out the other side. Forgive,” she urged the students seated before her. “You’ve got the struggle that Pope Francis is having right now.”
Sister Helen concluded, “You get in the beginning the seeds of all the principles right here: the gifts God gives you, the weaknesses you have. The seeds are going to sprout in you. You will bloom and flower in your own lives as a son or daughter of God.”
CBA student council president, senior Gerald Sharpe, reflected upon Sister Helen’s message and its impact on the academy’s young men.
“Sister Helen's talk to the CBA student body and faculty was both heartfelt and inspirational,” Sharpe said. “She brought to life Jesus' expression of mercy and forgiveness, and taught us how we can apply it to today's world. We were able to use Sister Helen's talk as a springboard to further the discussion of social justice within our CBA theology classes as well."