Sr. Prejean says compassion must go to guilty as well

  • April 26, 2010
Sr. Helen PrejeanTORONTO - Sr. Helen Prejean, the American nun renowned for her opposition to the death penalty and for accompanying those about to die in their final steps, captivated a Toronto audience April 20 with the story of her continuing journey.

Prejean’s first experience spiritually accompanying a convicted killer, Patrick Sonnier, was chronicled in a book and made into the 1995 feature film Dead Man Walking.

Prejean was the speaker at Regis College’s inaugural Martin Royackers Lecture series and talked about the call Christians have to not only uphold innocent life but also guilty life.

“I want to encourage you to deepen your own reflection on this issue. And don’t think the death penalty is a peripheral issue about what to do with a few terrible people. Our very soul is in this issue because what kind of people are we? A people of vengeance or a people of compassion?” she asked in her Louisiana drawl.

Prejean, with a laugh, said in theology courses they don’t talk about the sneakiness of God and how He gets us to do things bigger than we’d ever imagine. For her, it started with a simple request that she write to a man on death row. After a while, he asked if she would visit because nobody else did. She agreed, but the visitor’s form required her to fill out a relationship category.

“He said ‘hey I’m Catholic, you’re a nun, you can be my spiritual advisor.’ I didn’t know that two years later he’s going to be killed in the electric chair at midnight in the death house. At a quarter to six in the evening, in a weird protocol, everyone has to leave the death house except for the spiritual advisor. And then I’ll be there when they kill him while he looks at my face,” she said.

From the moment they met, Sonnier’s humanity shocked her.

“That was the moment where I got it, that no matter what he’d done — and I was going to find out and I was going to be horrified — but no matter what he had done, he was worth more than the worst thing he had ever done. Aren’t we all?”

The experience moved Prejean so deeply she became a champion against the death penalty.

That first experience with death row also strung her through her biggest regret, downplayed in the movie, which was her guilt about not approaching the victim’s families to offer help. The real hero in the movie, she said, should have been Lloyd LeBlanc, the victim’s father. He approached her at the very last hearing.

“He walks right up to me and said, ‘All the time you’ve been visiting those two brothers you didn’t come to see us once and we’ve been under such pressure for the death penalty.’ I didn’t know victims’ families were under any kind of pressure to choose the death penalty,” she said.

The man invited her to pray in the chapel with her, before the blessed sacrament, praying through the sorrowful mysteries. She said he was praying through the agony of having lost his only son, but he was also praying for Sonnier’s mother and for the ability to forgive his son’s murderer.

“He said, ‘Sister, people think forgiveness is weak, like you’re condoning what (the murderer) did, like it’s okay you killed my son.’ I said, it’s not losing the love in me and the integrity of the love in me. I’m not going to let hatred kill that and I’m going to do what Jesus said,” Prejean recounted. “Forgiveness was never going to be easy. Each day it’s got to be prayed for and struggled for.”

Since then, she has tried to approach victims’ families from the start.

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