By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
IOWA CITY — Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, talked about “waking up to the Gospel of justice” during a virtual presentation Oct. 21 hosted by the Newman Catholic Student Center.
Sister Prejean, an internationally recognized advocate for abolishment of the death penalty, describes her awakening in her latest book, a memoir titled “River of Fire.” Her first book, “Dead Man Walking,” published in 1993, became a movie for which actor Susan Sarandon won an academy award for her portrayal of Sister Prejean.
More than 150 people attended Sister Prejean’s Newman Center talk on Zoom video conference. The Louise Wolf-Novak Service and Social Justice Endowment sponsored the event. As the online session began, Sister Prejean said she has reflected on the resurrection of Jesus during this time of COVID-19.
“The spirit moves us, transforms us during this Respect Life month.” She encouraged people to engage in conversation because, as she said, “I come alive and wake up when someone says ‘let me tell you what happened.’”
“River of Fire” focuses on how grace wakes people up. The book takes readers through Sister Prejean’s discovery of injustice, which she had not experienced growing up in a well-to-do family in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That discovery led her to become an activist and to engage in the lives of people living in poverty and, eventually, to accompany inmates on death row.
Vatican II “called us to be participants and get involved in the world,” she said. Before Vatican II, involvement was the purview of the hierarchy. Afterwards, “it meant us. Don’t watch history go by. Be a participant.”
Her work in the inner city of New Orleans exposed Sister Prejean to the laws of segregation in action. “No one questioned it.” She awakened to that fact. Awakening to injustice is an ongoing experience, as people discovered with the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody this year after a police officer held his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, she said. The separation of children from their families at the border between Mexico and the United States is another example of an awakening to injustice.
“Learn about justice,” she said. “Don’t dismiss the power of the word. Be faithful to the power of Jesus.”
Growing up, Sister Prejean said she never heard of white privilege. “I knew it was good to be white if I got pulled over. But I never reflected on the word privilege.”
On her road to discovery, she learned the importance of people communicating with one another, across racial, cultural and other divides. “We need to be with people …who are different from us. We are not all bad people. We are just so separated.”
Sister Prejean described Jesus as “sneaky” in leading her toward abolition of the death penalty. That initiative began when she was asked to write a letter to a death-row inmate. Patrick Sonnier wrote back, noting he was Catholic and asked her to be his spiritual advisor. They connected. She did not know that she would walk with him to his execution. The first thing she did after witnessing Sonnier’s death “was to throw up.”
She began thinking about the fact that execution is legal in civil law, but was it the law of God? Not all laws are good. God gave people the ability to reason and to use their intellectual abilities. “What I saw set my soul on fire.”
The year “Dead Man Walking” was published, 80% of people supported the death penalty, Sister Prejean said. Churchgoers more often were the bigger supporters of the death penalty. She spoke about the death penalty with Pope John Paul II in 1997, an experience she describes in her book “The Death of Innocents.” She said she talked to him the same as she would talk to any other person.
She asked what it means to be pro-life when the church supports the death penalty. She told the pope that as she walked with Patrick Sonnier to his execution, he asked her to pray that God would hold up his legs as he walked. “’Where is the dignity,’ I said to the pope.”
During the pope’s visit to St. Louis in 1999, he said, “I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel an unnecessary.”
“We need compassion for all,” Sister Prejean said. She encouraged everyone – Catholic and non-Catholic – to get educated and “use your voice. We are called to be servants. We are called to be active in the Gospel.”