Death row jubilee: Sister Prejean joins event for pilgrimage workers

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Professional pilgrimage planners and
those who regularly receive or accompany pilgrims set off on their own Year of
Mercy pilgrimage in late January.

Most had experience working with pilgrims to Lourdes,
Fatima, the Vatican and World Youth Days. But one had a unique experience: St.
Joseph Sister Helen Prejean says she is a constant pilgrim to the “holy
land” of the human dignity and pain of society’s most despised members.

The author of “Dead Man Walking” and a campaigner
against the death penalty had a special experience Jan. 21 during the Vatican’s
Year of Mercy “Jubilee for Those Engaged in Pilgrimage Work.” She was
invited to Pope Francis’ early morning Mass and had a chance to speak to him
briefly afterward.

“Yesterday?” the pope asked Sister Prejean. She
had to tell him that Jan. 20 Texas carried out the execution of Richard
Masterson, convicted of murder. “I pray, I pray,” the pope responded,
she said.

Sister Prejean was not in Rome to meet the pope; that
happened thanks to the intervention of a priest friend who knew she was taking
part in the jubilee. And while she does not consider herself a pilgrimage
worker, as she attended the three days of conferences, catechesis and prayer
services, the connections and relevance to her own ministry became clear.

For example, Msgr. John Armitage, rector of England’s
Basilica of Our Lady of Walsingham, spoke about the crucial importance of giving
each and every pilgrim and visitor to a shrine a proper welcome.

“You’ve driven four hours to come here and you deserve
at least a smile and ‘I’m glad you’re here,’ not ‘I’ve no time’ or ‘The shrine
closes in 10 minutes,'” Msgr. Armitage said. Pope Francis’ focused on the
same obligation of welcome when he addressed the group Jan. 21.

Speaking to Catholic News Service, Sister Prejean said,
“Smile — it’s such a cliche,” but it is simply, shockingly
important. On death row, she said, just having a visitor is a signal that says
“you are a human being because they get a thousand signals a day that they
are nothing but disposable human waste.”

“Here’s what I realized about pilgrimage: First of all,
you leave your little comfortable zone to go out on the road toward a place of
holiness. That has been to death row. It is pilgrimage. It is setting out. And
it has brought me into this land, this very holy place of the dignity and the
goodness of people who are so despised and condemned.”

Sister Prejean is not naive. Many of the people she has
ministered to and accompanied to the electric chair or the chamber where they
are given a lethal injection “have done unspeakable crimes and are
guilty,” she said. But they are human beings created by God.

“People often say their big ambition is to go to the
Holy Land, but I feel like I have been and I keep going to the holy land where
people are suffering,” she said.

Msgr. Armitage, in his formal presentation to the
English-speaking participants Jan. 20, said another thing that resonated with
Sister Prejean and many of the others, especially those who accompany pilgrims
and volunteers to the baths at Lourdes, France.

“A pilgrimage is not just about where you pray, but
it’s about what you do,” he said. “That’s what makes the journey so
powerful. When you wake young people up at 5:30 in the morning to bathe and
toilet patients, that’s powerful.”

A pilgrimage, like the entire Year of Mercy celebration Pope
Francis has called for, is about “prayer, penance and doing something,”
he said.

Sister Prejean said that although visiting prisoners is one
of the traditional corporal works of mercy, it’s something most Christians are
afraid to do.

“It’s about fear and being told we must hate
someone,” she said. “Where there is no physical contact, where you
can’t look in someone’s eyes, where you never see them and all you hear is,
‘These are the worst of the worst. Look at the crime they did,’ it becomes this
shield, this barrier to being able to see, to hear their cry and to have

Mercy does not mean wiping your heart of “legitimate
outrage over the death of innocent people,” Sister Prejean said. “But
then we have to go from that outrage to how should we respond in the manner of
Christ? That’s a harder journey to make.”

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