‘Work to end death penalty’

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Sunday, November 20, 2011

‘Work to end death penalty’

Sister of St. Joseph Helen Prejean gestures during her keynote address Nov. 10 at the National Council of Catholic Women's conference in downtown Chicago. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
The women celebrate Mass with Cardinal George and other bishops and priests. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Work to end the death penalty. That’s what Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille Helen Prejean asked of more than 650 women on Nov. 10 at the National Council of Catholic Women’s annual conference held over three days at the Marriott Downtown Chicago. The National Council of Catholic Women consists of more than 4,000 women’s organizations in U.S. parishes and dioceses.

Prejean 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 Prejean to correspond with Patrick Sonnier, a convicted murderer on death row. Sonnier admitted to killing two teenagers with his brother.

Prejean eventually became Sonnier’s spiritual advisor 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 starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

Through her experience with Sonnier and working with the poor, Prejean said God changed her heart and prompted her, through grace, to look deep into the issues surrounding capital punishment and the legal system.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church allows the death penalty if society cannot be protected from the perpetrator. However, in modern countries like the United States where perpetrators can be safely kept away from society there is no need for the death penality, it adds (see CCC 2267).

Throughout her friendship with Sonnier, 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. He showed her how the victims’ families suffer and often don’t support capital punishment.

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,” Prejean asked conference attendees.

Cardinal George celebrated Mass with the women in the afternoon of Nov. 9. Several dozen priests joined him along with Bishops James Johnston of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., Bishop Robert Conlon of Joliet and Joseph Perry of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

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.

“We were better Catholics because my mother belonged to the ACCW,” he said. “It certainly helped me to understand who Christ is.”

This was Betty Taylor’s first NCCW convention. Taylor is head of Vicariate VI’s ACCW group.

“It is so inspiring to see so many Catholic women coming together in worship and service,” said Taylor who is a member of St. Helena of the Cross Parish. She said she has been involved in the women’s group for several years, since she became a Catholic.

“Collectively you realize that working together we can do a lot,” Taylor said.