Sarah Young, member of Loyola Academy's Class of 2014, wrote this article for the Prep, the school's student-run newspaper.
“To form young women and men for meaningful lives of leadership and service in imitation of Jesus Christ” reads the mission of Loyola Academy. Women and men for others is a phrase drilled into the minds of the Rambler student body; the question of how one carries out this mission, however, continues to challenge students.
On Monday, January 28, 2013, Sister Helen Prejean, a nun from the Congregation of Saint Joseph, blessed the Loyola community with her inspiring words explaining how she discovered her calling as a woman for others through her advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty.
“It’s one thing for me to say I’m a Christian, but I have to embody what it means; I have to live it,” explains Sister Helen in her “This I Believe” essay.
For the longest time, Sister Helen lived the life of a typical nun: teaching, praying, and socializing with those who were much like herself, but eventually, Sister Helen realized that Jesus calls each of us to a deeper mission, a mission of loving the oppressed. Sister Helen then packed her bags and headed to the housing projects of New Orleans where she joined four other nuns. Through her time in the projects, Sister Helen’s eyes were opened to a world of injustice to which she had previously been oblivious, and it was here in the projects that she experienced an encounter that would not only change her life but also the lives of countless Americans.
When asked why she advocates for the death penalty as opposed to other social justice issues, the sister simply replied, “I met someone.” In 1982, Sister Helen wrote her first letter to death row inmate, Patrick Sonnier. From that letter, the relationship between convicted murderer Sonnier and Sister Helen began to develop. Soon the sister agreed to serve as Sonnier’s spiritual advisor. Had she known that spiritual advisor’s remained present at the time of execution, Sister Helen insists that she would have never agreed to the position, but she says that God works in mysterious ways. Sister Helen walked Sonnier to the moment of his death and has since done the same for many others.
Sister Helen’s encounter with Patrick Sonnier led to the award-winning autobiographical novel Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, which was then adapted into a feature length film directed by Tim Robbins. The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, also written by Sister Helen, relays the story of two death row inmates whom she accompanied to their executions and whom she truly believes were innocent. Apart from the success of her two novels, the sister also earned the Pax Christi USA Pope Paul VI Teacher of Peace Award and the World Pacem in Terris Award joining the likes of Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, Sister Helen continues to live out her mission by giving speeches throughout the United States.
With the utmost confidence, Sister Helen proclaims, “I have no doubt that we will one day abolish the death penalty in America,” but at this moment 3,146 inmates remain on death row awaiting the moment of their death.
Sister Helen describes the issue of the death penalty as a “moral journey.” Rather than explicitly trying to convert her audience to her side of the argument, Sister Helen simply wants to continue the discussion of the death penalty. She understands the importance of forcing the people of America to reflect on the issue because unfortunately not many sermons discuss this pressing moral issue. By no means does Sister Helen condone or excuse the crimes of these inmates, but rather she to recognize the dignity of every human life.
As a true woman for others, Sister Helen’s witness and advocacy for the least accepted of society serves as an inspiration for Loyola students in their own spiritual lives. No matter how one chooses to fulfill the role as a disciple of Christ, I hope that that same passion Sister Helen Prejean exuberates for her work can be found in every Rambler through his or her ministry of choice.