Many years ago, I was waiting to hear a speaker at a Diocesan Adult Education Conference in Springfield. I was seated in the front row, and other priests were sitting on either side of me. The chairs were rather close together, and I can imagine that I and my seatmates were looking quite uncomfortable.
The woman we were waiting to listen to came forward to us, shook our hands, and exclaimed: “Y’all look like a bunch of convicts!”
Well, she ought to know. She was Sister Helen Prejean, who came to be well known for her work with prisoners on death row. She reported on her work in a memoir, Dead Man Walking (1993), which was made into a 1995 film of the same name.
Sister Helen has just published a new memoir, River of Fire, in which she recounts her life as a Catholic growing up in Louisiana in the middle of the 20th century and committing herself to the religious life as a teaching sister. This book fills in the reader on what occurred in her life up to the time that the book Dead Man Walking begins. Both books are available as audiobooks read by the author. There is much to be gained from listening to the words of Sister Helen in her own voice. As you have already gathered from her comment quoted above, she is a very funny lady.
We can be thankful that Sister Helen has witnessed to the unerasable dignity of those who have been convicted of grave crime and sentenced to death. We are also grateful for the people in our own diocese who engage in ministry with those who are imprisoned. In fact, there are efforts locally to help inmates learn to read, or to read better. I hope to report on these efforts in a future column.
One of Sister Helen’s great struggles was to negotiate what she perceived as a division between a “spiritual” Catholicism and a practice of faith with a “justice” orientation. With time, she came around to understanding that this is a false dichotomy. In fact, both concerns must go together.
Another daughter of Louisiana, Sister Marie McCloskey, OSU, formed me in an awareness that there is no split between unity with our incarnate God and a sense of urgency for justice in the world, here and now. I was a junior at Decatur St. Teresa High School when Sister Marie picked up the classroom’s globe and, with great passion, exclaimed: “This is what God is concerned about! This world, right here!”
In addition, here’s something for many of our readers to think about. Next weekend, there’s a Divorced and Separated Koinonia being held at Villa Maria, 1903 East Lake Drive on Lake Springfield. From the evening of Friday, Oct. 4, through the evening of Sunday, Oct. 6, we will celebrate a time of reflection and renewal in which separated and divorced Catholics are invited to participate. Contact the lay director of the weekend, Christy White, , for details. Now, I know that the name of this weekend may make it seem about as attractive as death row. But I guarantee you some peaceful days with some very nice people.