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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

Sr. Helen Prejean: “River of Fire”

(Please note: This week’s blog did not go out to my subscribers. I will not post a new reflection for the week of August 8. By then, I hope all of you who are subscribers, will receive this post. My next new post will be the week of August 15—I hope! I apologize for the inconvenience. And I thank you for your patience! SMelannie (8/6/’22)

You are probably familiar with Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of the Congregation of St. Joseph. Her best selling book, Dead Man Walking, was made into an Academy Award-winning film by Tim Robbins (1995) and starred Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The movie tells the true story of Prejean who accompanied a condemned man to his electrocution in a Louisiana prison.

(Sister Helen Prejean as a young Sister)

Prejean has written another book (2019) entitled River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey. This book is a prequel to Dead Man Walking. It tells the story of her childhood, her decision to enter the convent at age 18, her early years in religious life, her teaching in an all-white girls’ high school, the “earthquake” in her life caused by Vatican II and her higher education, and her eventual “awakening” to social justice issues—most notably, “the shocking brokenness of our criminal justice system.”

Prejean came from a Catholic upper-middle class family in Baton Rouge, LA. Her family had black servants. Her parents were very loving, and she enjoyed her siblings, Mary Ann and Louis. She is proud of her Catholic and Cajun background. In 1957 she made the decision to “enter the convent.” Though I entered in 1962, I could identify with her many stories about life in the convent “pre-Vatican II”: the strict silence, the highly structured prayers, the separation from “the world,” and practices such as asking for a pardon and performing practices of humility. Prejean also captures her youthful idealism, the beauty of religious services, the time for prayer, and the comaraderie among the sisters. One sister, Chris, a nurse, eventually became her best friend. Their friendship is inspiring.

For half her life, then, Prejean basically taught high school and did parish work. But in the early 1980s she attended a social justice conference, a conference that “permanently altered the trajectory of my life.” It was a “lightning bolt” experience for her. She says she went from praying to God to solve the world’s problems, to immersing herself in the struggles of poor people living on the margins of society. A year later she became a volunteer educator at a nearby all-black St. Thomas housing project where she still lives and works today at age 83.

The last two sentences in River of Fire are the first two sentences in Dead Man Walking: “When Chava Colon from the Prison Coalition asks me one January day in 1982 to become a pen pal to a death row inmate, I say, Sure. The invitation seems to fit with my work in St. Thomas.” Little did she know where her “sure” would take her.

Two more things stand out for me in what Mark Shriver called “this thought-provoking, informative, inspiring, and funny” book. (Yes, there is humor throughout.) While studying during the summer, Prejean meets a diocesan priest, William, from “out east.” They are immediately attracted to each other. Over the course of the next several years, she experiences the unique challenges of a celibate friendship between a priest and a nun. I appreciated Prejean’s willingness to share this part of her journey with such honesty.

And finally, at the end of the book, Prejean shares a letter she wrote to Pope Francis in January 2016. It’s entitled “An Appeal for the Catholic Church to Fully Respect the Dignity of Women.” It is clear she loves and respects Francis for all he is doing for the Church—especially his strong statements against the death penalty. But then she shares with him “the ache and sorrow” she experiences because of a deep “wound” in the Church: “the way the Church treats women.” She notes that women’s voices are absent in plenary synods, commissions, and tribunals. This policy, she says, “thwarts the dynamic effect we women could have on dialogue and decision-making” on Church policies and practices.

(Photo by Scott Langley, book jacket)

Prejean then gets personal. She has spoken to U.N. commissions, the U.S. Congress, governors, citizens in civic groups, and religious bodies all over the world. She has been invited by Protestant churches to preach the homily at their religious services. “Yet, in my own Church I am not permitted to preach a homily.” In fact, because she is a woman, she is not even permitted to read the Gospel at Mass. She says, “My voice is muted by my own Church, whom I love and have served all my life.” I, as another woman devoted to our Church, have great empathy for her ache and sorrow. (Note: her letter was written in 2016. Since then Pope Francis has initiated the Synodal process in 1921, inviting the whole church—especially the laity—to meet and converse with one another in order to discern what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church today. In addition, the Pope has opened up some positions of authority in the Vatican to laymen and laywomen (nuns are laywomen.)

Let me conclude this brief review with what Father James Martin, S.J. says about this book: “River of Fire is a book to read and treasure, and Sister Helen’s is a life to celebrate and honor.” Amen to that!

For reflection:

Did anything stand out for you in today’s reflection? If so, what and why?

Have you read or seen Dead Man Walking? If so, what was your reaction to the film or book? to Sister Helen?

Have any of you ever ministered in a prison or corresponded with an inmate? If so, What was that experience like for you?

PS: Thank you for your prayers for last week’s retreat for the 2023 Golden Jubilarians of the Sisters of Notre Dame in the USA. Next week I will be leading a retreat for the Medical Mission Sisters in Philadelphia, PA. Their congregation, founded in 1925, now serves in 17 countries on 5 continents. Thank you for your prayerful support for this retreat.

Prejean is the first to admit that it is sometimes hard to fight for the dignity of individuals—some of whom have committed unspeakable crimes. But, as she asked Pope John Paul II once, “Does the Catholic Church defend only innocent human life? Or does the Church defend all human life?” … Our video for today is a song by Zach Williams, an American Christian rock artist from Arkansas who, as a young man, sometimes got into trouble with the law himself. This song is “Chain Breaker” which, in 2017, won the award for Pop/Contemporary song of the year. What makes this video unique is Williams is performing the song in Harding Prison in Nashville, TN. (There are no lyrics with this video, but I’ve attached another video with lyrics.)

The refrain in this song is: “If you’ve got pain, he’s a pain taker. If you feel lost, he’s a way maker. If you need freedom, saving, he’s the prison shaking savior. If you’ve got chains, he’s a chain breaker.” As you will see in the video, many of the inmates know this song by heart…

Here’s a version of the song with the lyrics:

I look forward to reading your comments on this reflection. Please respond below. Thank you!

20 Responses

  1. For some reason I have always hesitated to see the movie, “Dead Man Walking” but this article makes me interested in reading the book. Also, I didn’t know anything about Sister Helen, so I enjoyed the article and will read “River of Fire.”
    Zach’s video/music from the prison was very moving. It is obvious that the words and music are meaningful to the listeners there. They are also meaningful to me.

  2. Well, the problem with getting your email seems to have resurfaced. Did not get it this Monday, or on Sunday as it had been coming. I went to your website for this. Hope it pops up in a day or two, but letting you know there is once again a delivery problem.

    1. Christine, Yes, I didn’t get my “Sunflower Seeds” either–and it’s Tuesday almost noon. Thanks for letting me know you didn’t get yours either. I’ll pass that information on. I appreciate your continued interest in my blog. Thank you! Melannie

      1. Thank you Sister. I have a feeling there may be quite a few others with the same problem, because there are usually many more comments!

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Helen’s book. I love her!
    Wanted to tell you, too, that I am “hung-up” on LAZARUS in “Picking Strawberries”. Have been talking to Jeez a little more lately.

  4. Melanie: Thanks for spreading the word about Helen Prejean and her wonderful ministry.
    I’ve read the book, saw the movie Dead Man Walking, and pretty much observe her
    media exposure. He ministry is so important and her courage to challenge the Church’s oppression in not accommodating women as full ministers—are examples of a selfless
    woman we might all emulate. Thank you for this sharing. Like you, I too can identify with the pre-Vatican training we all endured. This story must be told! Mary Ann Flannery, SC. (I was deeply moved by the men in the video and Zach’s performance. God bless them all.)

  5. Well even though I still haven’t gotten your email (not complaining, I know you are working on it!) I read your blog and watched the video from the website. I do know of Sr. Prejean, although I have yet to see the movie. The video moved me to tears, watching those prisoners singing along with the lyrics. All I can say, is thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this. God bless you!

  6. Regarding your first little comment, it sounds like a reacurrence of what happened to Bishop Fulton Sheen in the 50’s only now they can do it electronically. We’ll definitely all pray for your continued successful and inspiring blog every week. Keep up the good fight.

  7. Dear Sr. Melannie,
    We no longer receive your blog and must look it up. We were remiss this week, and didn’t get it read until this morning (Saturday). My husband, Jack, and I met and heard Sr. PreJean speak at a Prison Ministry Conference in Orlando, FL a long time ago. She is a powerful speaker. I read “Dead Man Walking” about that time but have not yet read “River of Fire”.
    We have been doing prison ministry since the early 70’s when St. Susanna (our parish in Plainfield, IN) began ministering at the Indiana Boys School. We began visiting inmates at Coleman Federal in 2001 when one of our sons was there. We still are in regular touch with several gentleman and consider them “adopted” sons. We even became acquainted and friends with some of their parents.
    Due to age, we no longer visit prisons but I write to a number of inmates, some of which are on Death Row. We have actually gone with a group from our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Daytona Beach and stood watch for an execution. There is a real meaning to the words “for whom the bell tolls” because they sound a large gong at the moment of death. I wonder how I will feel when one of my “sons” name is drawn. (In Florida they actually draw the next name!)
    Thank you for drawing attention to this issue and please keep up your good work.God Bless You”!

  8. I wrote a response but it seems to have disappeared. I’ll try again.
    My husband, Jack, and I met Sr. PreJean several years ago when she spoke at a Prison Ministry Conference In Orlando, FL. She is a powerful speaker. I read “Dead Man Walking” a long time ago but have not read “”River of Fire”.
    My husband and I used to visit inmates and prior to Covid we went with a group from Our Lady of Lourdes in Daytona Beach and stood watch for an execution. The phrase “for whom the bell tolls” actually refers to the bell that is rung at the time of death. I write to a number of inmates – some of whom are on Florida’s Death Row – and often wonder how I will feel when one of “my sons” is executed. We need to abolish the Death Penalty! 😥

  9. Please help. I seem to have been taken off your Monday reflection blog. For the last 3 Mondays I haven’t received them from you I feel quite devastated as though I have lost a very good friend. Hope you can put me back on again.

    I am a 90 year old great grandmother from Simon’s Town South Africa. I went to the wonderful Convent of Notre Dame in Kroonstad, South Africa many, many years ago and sadly it closed down in the 60ies. Also I would like to boast about my rather famous cousin Wendy Beckett Sadly she died as few years ago. Please call her up on google. She too was a SND

    My love and blessings to you. Hope I will be with you soon again

    Ann Munnik

  10. Hello Sister Melanie,
    I, too, have not received your blog for the last three weeks and realize that it is not your problem.
    Is there a Saint we need to ask for help with social media?
    I thought the videos were very moving, and Sister Helen Prejean is an inspiration for us to see everyone as God’s child and in need of love and comfort.

  11. Hi Sister Melannie,

    I read Sr. Helen’s book about two years ago (maybe three) and loved every word of it. I’ve read “Dead Man Walking” too, and same thing — loved every word. It’s absolutely ridiculous that women can’t preach or read the gospel in our church. I find it always refreshing to read the female reflections in Give Us This Day, yours, of course, being one of them. More and more I firmly believe that it’s people like you and Sr. Helen, who make me stay in the Catholic Church (Pope Francis, too). Keep doing what you’re doing!

  12. Walking with a teenage girl who is incarcerated has taught me what many who have made mistakes in their lives need; respect from others so that they can find the dignity within themselves. I have shown my mentee magic tricks — not just showing her the trick but teaching her how to perform the trick. By my empowering her with the gift of “magic” she has begun to discover the magic within herself. As she shares the magic trick with others, she is open to sharing more of her own gifts. And for those few moments I see a childlike joy within her.

  13. It’s August 12 and the last of your blogs I received was three weeks ago. I had to look up your site to find you and the most recent. I pray that the issue(s) will be fixed. There is so much knowledge, insight, and beauty in your posts. They bring both challenge and comfort.

  14. Melannie, I checked again this morning, August 20th, to see if I could see your latest blog, because your blog lights up my week every Monday or Tuesday morning– whenever it comes. I am just glad that we will get to see your blog when the people working on it can fix it.

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Meet Sr. Melannie

Hi and welcome to my blog! I’m Sister Melannie, a Sister of Notre Dame residing in Chardon, Ohio, USA. I’ve been very lucky! I was raised in a loving family on a small farm in northeast Ohio. I also entered the SNDs right after high school. Over the years, my ministries have included high school and college teaching, novice director, congregational leadership, spiritual direction, retreat facilitating, and writing. I hope you enjoy “Sunflower Seeds” and will consider subscribing below. I’d love to have you in our “sunflower community.” Thank you!

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