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Unlikely Spiritual Heroes

Author(s): Brennan Hill

ISBN13: 9780867169249

ISBN10: 0867169249


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  • Brennan Hill profiles eight improbable candidates for the great things they did: Thomas Merton, at first glance, a party-going ladys man, becomes a Trappist monk and peace activist; Helen Prejean, a quiet religious sister, befriends and advocates for the seemingly most monstrous among us, murderers on death row; Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a bookish, shy son of Italian immigrants, becomes one of the most outspoken prelates of our time; Pedro Arrupe, a medical student then priest, survives nuclear holocaust and becomes a great Jesuit leader; Jean Donovan, a Harley-riding businesswoman, turns missionary and is martyred; Dorothy Stang, a religious sister and schoolteacher, champions the environment and loses her life doing so; Maximilian Kolbe, a sickly, eccentric Franciscan, turns publisher and warrior for peace and dies in Auschwitz trading his life for a Jewish prisoner; Karol Wojtyla, a young Polish actor whose election to pope makes him one of the most famous men on the world stage.

    These unlikely heroes saw great injustice, sorrow, and violence in the world and, in their own ways, some small, some universal, sought and created love, justice, peace, and hope for our time.

  • Brennan Hill

    BRENNAN R. HILL, PH.D., is professor emeritus in the theology department at Xavier University in Cincinnati. His most recent books are 8 Freedom Heroes: Changing the World with Faith; 8 Spiritual Heroes: Their Search for God; Jesus the Christ: Contemporary Perspectives (New Edition) and The On-Going Renewal of Catholicism.

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    'Here theology meets life and comes alive with spiritual vigor!'

    - Daniel C. Maguire, professor of moral theology, Marquette University

    'Brennan Hill reveals the spirituality of his heroes by focusing on their humanness. When lifes circumstances called on them to step forward, they drew upon their inner spirit and had the strength to take a stand against injustice. May we too!'

    - Louise Akers, S.C., coordinator, Office of Peace, Justice and Integrity of Creation

    'Powerful and hopeful, these eight spiritual heroes inspire us to relish the call to discipleship, whatever the cost.'

    - Marge Kloos, S.C., D. Min., dean of arts and humanities, College of Mount St. Joseph


    'Time to go,' said the warden. The condemned man, Patrick Sonnier, moved toward the room where he was to be executed, his chains scraping along the floor. Sister Helen, who had walked with him for years anticipating this event, was allowed to put her hand on his shoulder for the first time. She accompanied him to the oak electric chair, kissed him on the back, and then moved out to the witness room.

    Patrick publicly asked for forgiveness for what he had done, and was strapped to the chair. He found Helens face and said: 'I love you,' and Helen stretched her hand toward him and said: 'I love you, too.' Electrodes were connected to Patricks head and leg, a switch was pulled several times, and soon after, the prisoner was pronounced dead. Helen left the prison in the dark and cold, was met by some of her sisters and friends, and began the long ride home. She reflected: 'I love this man, this spark of God, who has taught me so much'1 As they drove down the highway Helen asked the driver to pull over; she got out and vomited. This was the end of Helens years of struggle to save Patricks life, of countless visits with him as he awaited his death. It was the beginning of an ongoing commitment to condemned prisoners, to the families of their victims, and to advocacy against capital punishment.


    Helen Prejean was born in 1939 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her parents lived comfortably in a large home and were devoted to their three children. Her father, Louis, a lawyer, taught Helen to love books and to enjoy a good argument. Her mother, Gusta Mai, a nurse, passed on her gift of compassion to her daughter. Both parents, according to Helen, loved their children immensely.

    The family was well-off enough to have servants, who lived in a small house out back. Helen grew up in the South of the forties and fifties, a time when blacks could not attend white schools, had to sit at the back of the bus and in the side pews of the church, and receive Communion after the white folk. As a young girl, Helen was fascinated with what she saw as the vibrancy and spontaneity in people of color, but she was discouraged from associating with them. On one occasion she was shocked to see a young black woman literally kicked off a bus onto the pavement. Her father often represented black clients for a minimal charge, but neither he nor his wife seemed to question the racial discrimination of the time.

    The family was Catholic of the 50s vintage, reciting the daily rosary, watching Bishop Sheen on TV, regularly hosting priests at home, and hoping that at least one of the children would have a vocation. Helen attended Catholic school and was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, whom she found to be warm, loving, and 'funny.' Helen loved the Mass with its awesome sense of mystery. She says, 'It gave me a sense of this invisible presence, that God was somehow with me and the most important thing was to do Gods will, to hear that voice and follow it.'

    After high school, Helen decided that rather than getting married and starting her own little family, she would 'go wide' and become a 'bride of Christ.'4 She believed that it was Gods will that she join the sisters that had taught her, so she packed her black and white clothes and a pair of 'old lady shoes,' and was driven to a convent in New Orleans, crying all the way.

    The Sisters of St. Joseph had been founded in the seventeenth century by four Frenchwomen who wanted to care for homeless children. The sisters Helen encountered were like many nuns of the time, women who dressed in full-flowing habits, led sheltered, semi-cloistered lives, and had few educational opportunities.

    By the time Helen entered the community in 1957, it was beginning to change. In 1950 Rome had instructed sisters to gain better educational and theological training and to better accommodate modernity. Then Vatican II encouraged radical church renewal. The Council urged sisters to rediscover the original vision of their congregations, and to play an active role in the church in the modern world.

    Members of Helens community moved away from the hierarchical structures in community and adopted more modern lifestyles. They also took on a variety of new ministries, especially those concerned with serving the poor and advocating for social justice.

    At first, Helen was slow adapting to this change. After all, she thought she had joined the convent to be a nun, not a social worker! In graduate school she enjoyed the freedom of going to pizza parties, playing her guitar, and becoming friends with priests, but it took some sorting out for her. Many sisters were leaving and she had to ask herself whether she wanted to join them. She was more drawn to the spiritual than to activism and social justice, so she was inclined to stay on the sidelines of this renewal, teaching her classes and then hurrying back to the cloister.

    It wasnt until 1980, during a retreat given by Sister Marie Augusta Neal, a PH.D. from Harvard and a major figure in leading American sisters to the service of justice, that Helens perspective began to change. Helen recalls how Neal started with an overview of the plight of the poor in the world. Helen knew that already. But then Sister Marie Augusta talked about Jesus preaching to the poor. Helen thought she knew what would come next, the poor would be with God in heaven. But Marie Augusta did not say that. Instead she said that Jesus good news was that the poor should be poor no longer! She was being called not to just pray for the poor and leave it to God to take care of them, but to take action to help raise people out of poverty.

    The next year Helen put her belongings in a pickup truck and drove from her comfortable convent to a noisy and chaotic housing project. She was told to put her bed below window level, where it would be safer from random gunfire. Through the long, lonely nights she would read the lives of her new heroes: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dorothy Day. During the day she would work at an adult learning center, teaching the locals reading.

    It was as though Helen had traveled to a different galaxy. Here she found adults who had graduated from public schools but were illiterate, as well as young dropouts, drug dealers, addicts, teenaged girls who clutched their infants, and grief stricken mothers of gunned-down teens. These now were her people. She spent her days helping single mothers make ends meet or counseling teens away from peddling drugs. Helen, who had spent so many hours in prayer, began to learn that prayer and action can become one. She writes: 'Before, I had asked God to right the wrongs and comfort the suffering. Now I know, really know, that God entrusts those tasks to us.'


    One evening in 1982, Helen was asked if she would be a pen pal to someone on death row. Thinking that this would be just part of her new work with the poor, Helen agreed. She wrote her first letter to Patrick Sonnier, and enclosed some pictures, including one of herself and one of Jesus on the cross. Helen was surprised when Patrick answered and said that her letter was welcome. They began to correspond regularly.

    Patrick would tell her about his day; he spent twenty-three hours in a six-by-eight cell, outfitted with a bunk, a toilet, and a wash basin. His one hour out could be spent with the eleven others on his tier, but relations were often tense or worse. His mother was ill, so she seldom visited, and his brother was in the same prison serving a life sentence.


    After several months, Helen became curious about Patricks crime. She was allowed to examine the files and discovered that Patrick and his brother, Eddie, were convicted of attacking a teenaged girl and her boyfriend on a lovers lane, raping the girl and shooting them both in the back of the head. The two killers were identified by other couples whom they had similarly molested but had survived their attacks. Eddie was given a life sentence, but Patrick was sentenced to death.

    The gruesome details of the murders and thoughts of what the victims parents must have gone through nearly overwhelmed Helen. Even though she abhorred the evil Patrick had done, she was drawn by his loneliness, his abandonment, and need for care. She writes: 'But I sense something, some sheer and essential humanness, and that, perhaps, is what draws me most of all.'


    Helen next asked Patrick how she might go about visiting him and he answered that he would like her to be his spiritual advisor. She applied for the position, and was interviewed by an aging chaplain who warned her that these men were 'the scum of the earth' and couldnt be trusted. He told her to wear her habit at all times and just prepare the convicts for the sacraments. Disconcerted by the advice, she gained approval and in September went for her first visit to Patrick.

    Helen was surprised when she saw him: a handsome, clean-cut young man in immaculate clothes. He was bright and talkative, filling her in on the details of his early life on welfare, his failed marriage, and his other stint in jail. He never mentioned the crime. Looking back, she remembers her na?»vet?® at the time, of not realizing that she had to also give attention to the victims families and being surprised that those who faced execution did not have adequate legal defense.

    The following year Patrick received word that the date had been set for his execution. He began to lose his appetite and his weight dropped quickly. An appeal was in the works and, while waiting, Helen discovered that Patricks brother was actually the trigger man in the crime. She also discovered from a lawyer friend that the jury selection for the trial was flawed and that Patrick had had a weak defense lawyer. She was beginning to get the picture: A lot of death row inmates are poor and get defended poorly. In addition, Patrick was tried in the South, in what is commonly referred to as the Death Belt, Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, and Florida, where two-thirds of all United States executions are carried out.

    Helen decided to take part in the appeal process and she got Bishop Stanley Joseph Ott of Baton Rouge and some lawyers to visit the governors office. The governor listened to their appeal, but felt that he was carrying out the will of the people in going through with the execution. Helen discovered that this was how most of the officials distanced themselves from the killing. They were 'just doing their jobs.'


    Helen came to realize that in the prison system there was nearly always a disconnect between personal values and the public duty to be carried out. The arbitrariness and randomness of the sentencing of the poor, the psychological torture of those who waited years before execution, and the fact that executions did not deter crime, all seemed to be set aside in the name of following orders. People could consider themselves deeply religious and at the same time carry out executions. Additionally, Helen realized there was no individual responsibility for these executions. The name of the executioner was always kept secret and he was paid per execution by verbal agreement, with no paperwork. One guard even whispered in the ear of a condemned man before the switch was pulled something to the effect that it was nothing personal. To render the whole process more 'civilized,' a white tablecloth dinner was served to the prisoner the night before, attended by the warden, lawyers, and guards who wanted to come. They all held hands and sang hymns together. And the next day the prisoner was killed!


    Helen and her lawyer friend made one late appeal to the Pardon Board, but to no avail. At the meeting, Helen was confronted by the victims families and regretted that she had neglected to minister to them as well. Helen began to plan Patricks funeral Mass and visited the death house to make plans for a prayer service for him. Suddenly, while there, Helen caused some commotion by fainting. (Apparently she had been working hard on an empty stomach and no food was available to her in the prison.)

    A communion service was eventually conducted and Patricks mood seemed to lighten. He thanked Helen for loving him and she left, still hoping for a last minute stay of execution, which was denied. On the next visit, Patrick dropped to one knee and said: 'Sister Helen, Im going to die.' Helen wrote about that moment:

    My soul rushes toward him. I am standing with my hands against the mesh screen, as close as I can get to him. I pray and ask God to comfort him, cushion him, wrap him around, give him courage to face death, to step across the river, to die with love. The words are pouring out of me.

    She thought of Gandhi and his commitment to nonviolence and of Camuss observation that for five centuries Christians believed that Jesus forbade killing.

    Patricks hair was shaved so that it wouldnt catch fire. He wrote his last will and testament, and when he was finished began to shiver. He turned down the last rites because he didnt like the priest and told Helen to receive Communion for both of them. Patrick was taken to the electric chair and then electrocuted.


    When Helen returned home, she was given a sleeping pill and fell into a deep, restful sleep. Several days later Bishop Ott offered the funeral Mass and Patrick was buried in a special cemetery alongside priests and nuns. A reporter asked her if she was in love with Patrick, because of his last words, 'I love you.' She smiled at the thought of the possible sensational headline in The National Enquirer: 'Nun falls in love with murderer,' and answered: 'I loved Pat as a sister loves a brother, as Jesus taught us to love each other; it was not a romantic relationship.'

Unlikely Spiritual Heroes

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