The semester is drawing to a close. The final leg of our journey through the life of Dorothy Day and the Church’s social justice tradition took us through liberation theology of the 1960s and the pro-life movement of the ’70s. Dorothy Day died in the year 1980.
Two years later, another woman of the Church would begin her own impactful ministry. In January of 1982, Sr. Helen Prejean began correspondence as a spiritual advisor with Patrick Sonnier, a man on death row in Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. Her early experiences with Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, another man sentenced to death in Angola, compelled her to write Dead Man Walking and thrust her into a life of activism against capital punishment and in favor of greater support for victims’ families.
This final post of the semester will summarize my search over the last few months for a second semester research topic. I conceived of the idea to center my work on Sr. Helen Prejean’s ministry after reading Dead Man Walking for the first time earlier this year (I followed up by reading sections of The Death of Innocents, her second book in which she details her work with two convicts sentenced to die whom she believes are innocent). Easy access to information will enrich my research. I have a cousin who works for the public defender’s office in New Orleans whom I plan to reach out to while gathering information on the justice system in Sr. Helen’s home state. Also, I discovered that Sr. Helen donated her papers to DePaul’s archives six years ago, providing me with a wealth of information only eleven train stops down the red line. I have already visited the archives twice, the first of which included a meeting with Morgen MacIntosh Hodgetts, a Special Collections librarian at DePaul’s Richardson Library.
I’ve identified two important concepts from class that connect to Sr. Helen’s work. Miguel Diaz, a professor in Loyola’s theology department and former US ambassador to the Vatican, gave a lecture in class on liberation theology recently. In describing reflection on praxis as fundamental to the movement, he noted that “The thinkers have to be engaged with the reality of the world, and not remain in ivory towers”. Dorothy Day shared this view. In The Long Loneliness, in reference to Christians’ apathy towards the vulnerable, she sarcastically notes “[Christ] evidently wanted people to remain as they were and not to concern themselves about the affairs of the world” (39). Sr. Helen’s theology and moral reasoning have been heavily informed by her personal experiences in the usually-restricted killing chambers, which she makes clear in her books (especially The Death of Innocence).
Liberation theologians are also concerned with action at the critical moment (referred to as Kairos). The 1960s was an era of opposition to social ills, as various social movements converged against segregation in the US, war, neocolonialism, and poverty. Gustavo Gutierrez and other Latin Americans recognized the time was opportune to launch a movement. An article from the NY Times editorial board that I read a few months ago made me aware that Sr. Helen Prejean’s work was a sign of the times in its own way. Today, 49% of the population supports capital punishment, while 42% opposes it (according to the Pew Research Center). Opposition is at its highest level since the early 1970s. Yet when Sr. Helen began her work in the early 1980s, support for the death penalty was climbing at a precipitous rate. Dead Man Walking was first published in 1993, and the movie version starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn was released in 1995. Measured support for the death penalty in 1994, the year in-between, was 80%, the highest level recorded in the United States. The timing of Sr. Helen’s intervention, at a moment when public support for the practice was nearing a consensus, is crucial to her narrative.
Combining these two elements, my topic tentatively is an examination of how direct experience and the critical moment framed Sr. Helen Prejean’s ministry during the 1980s and 1990s. It will draw from the work and views of other historical figures of Catholic social justice, as well as from influential Catholics in Louisiana and beyond who weighed in on the capital punishment debate before and during the last two decades of the 20th century. An alternative topic I’ve mulled over is Sr. Helen’s use of storytelling as her principal mode of activism. My hope for winter break and the first few weeks of next semester is to solidify my research focus and begin collecting information (using Ramonat Seminar funds I’ve purchased Sr. Helen’s books and will carefully reread them over break). Second semester plans also consist of a potential trip to Louisiana and possibly to meet with Sr. Helen herself for an interview (I will reach out to her soon). As much as I’d like to avoid any school-related work during winter break, the free time will prove too valuable to not take advantage of. Stay tuned for next semester’s posts.