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Home » 3 Faiths Together


4 August 2018 No Comment


Father John Walsh
In 1976, after an impassioned, last-minute speech by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the House of Commons narrowly passed Bill C-84, abolishing the death penalty in Canada. It was abolished after a decade of fierce debate. Sister Helen Prejean writes Dead Man Walking and narrates the movie of the same name for which Susan Sarandon received an academy award playing the role of Sister Helen. Years later I attended a talk by Sister Helen at UQAM in Montreal. She was forceful and dynamic in expressing why she was against capital punishment. At the end of the Conference I introduced myself as John Walsh, and she adds, Father John Walsh? I had no idea how she knew who I was. The story is that she attended Divine Word Centre in London Ontario as a student and completed her course the year before I began to teach there. Her words: I have followed your career. I was with CJAD at the time and asked her for an interview. She was rushed but accepted a half hour interview. There are two things I remember to this day.

She began: I lived in a suburb of New Orleans where life for me was very comfortable. I lived with other sisters and we followed an easy schedule of work, prayer, and meals together. Then I was transferred to the other side of New Orleans. My first night in my new home there was a knock at the door. I opened the door and a woman almost bowled me over. That’s when I saw she was being chased by a man with a knife in his hand. That night my God changed.

Helen was also very happy to have lived in Canada and was extremely delighted to know that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had passed legislation abolishing capital punishment.

In New Orleans her work with residents of the St. Thomas housing project made her realize that in order to live up to her faith and ideals, now with a very different idea of who God was, that she must shoulder the struggles of the poor as if they were her own.

She begins to correspond with Patrick Sonnier who was in death row. She becomes aware of the cruelty of capital punishment and the widespread abuse and injustice of the American judicial system. Witnessing Patrick’s execution alters Prejean forever. She becomes a full-time anti-death penalty advocate and witnesses a second execution, that of Robert Willie. Helen’s work to abolish the death penalty remains incomplete until she realizes that in addition to ministering to the men on death row, she must also try to heal the families of their victims.

I can only imagine the happiness she feels today when she reads what Pope Francis recently said about the death penalty. Francis declared that the death penalty is wrong in all cases, a definitive change in church teaching that is likely to challenge faithful Catholic politicians, judges and officials in the United States and other countries who have argued that their church was not entirely opposed to capital punishment.
Francis said executions were unacceptable in all cases because they are an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person. The Church will now work with determination for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide.
It could set off a backlash among American Catholic traditionalists who have already cast Francis as being dangerously inclined to change or compromise church teaching. It could also complicate the lives of judges who are practicing Catholics.
In 2015 he said that from the beginning of his ministry he had been led to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.
The challenge remains: to abolish capital punishment world-wide.

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