Change of Heart– Death Penalty

October 17, 2011

Living in Georgia, Troy Davis’ execution was very real.  Watching and reading the news coverage of this man’s last moments stirred something deep within me.  These last few weeks this post has been building within me, and  I share it today, knowing that not everyone will agree with me.  I know what I believe, though, and it is because of an incident almost 9 years ago that finalized the shift in my heart…

The priest that married Chris and I was a long time family friend of the Eldredge family.  This man journeyed with Chris through his RCIA process.  Fr. Charlie had dual jobs in the Diocese of Baton Rouge as both pastor of a parish and also chaplain at Angola State Prison.  During our marriage preparation, Chris and I would drive up to have dinner with Fr. Charlie and then go to his rectory for our conversations about marriage and discussions of our Premarital Inventory.

One night, months before our wedding, we sat at Fr. Charlie’s dining room table, filled with excitement about our upcoming wedding.  We were laughing and joking and sharing stories of our relationship.  All of a sudden, around 9pm, there was a knock on Fr. Charlie’s door.  Fr. Charlie answered it, and two women were standing there.  The second I caught there eyes, I could tell that something was wrong.  They began to speak with shaky voices as they pleaded for Fr. Charlie’s help, weeping the entire time. 

One of the women was the mother of a man that sat on death row at Angola, and the other was the sister of the man on death row.  The execution of their son and brother was scheduled that night. They begged Fr. Charlie for help.

Fr. Charlie instantly ended our meeting and went to assist them.   As Chris and I stood up to leave, our hearts were heavy.  It was the first time that I thought about the family behind the person being executed.  The pain in that mother’s and sister’s eyes will never leave me.  On a night that we were experiencing joy and hope, another family was experiencing one of the most traumatic things possible– the death of their son and of their brother.

As we went to get into our car, I knew I was a changed woman.

Growing up, I had never challenged my thinking on the death penalty, until Sister Helen Prejean came one year to speak at our high school (I went to a Sister of St. Joseph High school). I felt the shift begin then, and then Sr. Ily, another Sister of St. Joseph, put Dead Man Walking into my hands.  That night at Fr. Charlies’, though, helped me understand what our Catholic Social Justice Teachings are all about– the dignity of life.   I know now that all of these moments were moments of grace, where God was speaking very clearly to me. 

There is always a person behind a crime.  There is always a family behind the person also.  There is also always a victim’s family involved.  As Catholics, we support and believe in the dignity of life from birth to death.  And I do not believe that executing anyone, no matter their crime, shows respect and dignity for human life. 

Troy Davis’ execution has not left me.  There is so much hurt there from Officer MacPhail’s family’s loss to the Davis family’s loss.  There is much for me to ponder about my call to action here.  

What beliefs of yours have been challenged?
Which of our Catholic Social Justice Teachings do you feel challenged to delve deeper into?

Becky is an Ignatian-trained spiritual director, retreat facilitator, and writer. She is the author of the Busy Lives and Restless Souls (March 2017, Loyola Press) and The Inner Chapel (April 2020, Loyola Press). She helps others create space to connect faith and everyday life through facilitating retreats and days of reflection, through writing, and through spiritual direction. With nearly twenty years of ministry experience within the Catholic Church, Becky seeks to help others discover God at work in the every day moments of people’s lives by utilizing St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and the many gifts that our Catholic faith and Ignatian Spirituality provide.

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