(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.
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.
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!
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!