Reflecting on a Visit from Sr. Helen Prejean

Back in February, High School kicked off their Lenten season with a sepcial assembly with Sister Helen Prejean. Reflecting on her inspirational talk, three Ursuline girls wrote a beautiful narrative about the meaning of Sr. Helen's words how we should be moved to act:

Sr. Helen Prejean, C.S.J., is well-known for her authoring of the novel Dead Man Walking, which later inspired a famous film of the same name. The novel chronicles Sr. Helen's own experiences as she spoke with and counseled two inmates on death row. On Monday, February 19, 2018, Sr. Helen spent an hour speaking at Ursuline detailing her experiences and how we, as young women, are able to change the world we live in. Firstly, Sr. Helen spoke about how many people in prison come from a different walk of life than us students, whose parents can afford to send their daughters to an expensive private school. It was hard to hear this, even though it was something I already knew. It was hard to hear not because I was offended, but because it made me realize how, in the grand scheme of things, we come into this world based solely on luck; I lucked out, many others did not. Why don't I do more? How can I do more? I am so small; what difference can I possibly make? These are some of the questions that occured to me when I was listening to Sr. Helen.

Secondly, Sr. Helen told how she felt about the inmates on death row. The way she spoke about these people amazed me.  When most people hear about some horrifying crime, like a murder or rape, they feel enormous sympathy for the victims and their families.  Rarely does someone express sorrow or compassion for the criminal. This is obviously quite understandable. How can you forgive the person who killed your child, or mother, or father, or husband, or wife?  How could you possibly feel sorry for the person who raped or shot your loved one? How could anyone show love and mercy to a person like that? And yet this is exactly what Sr. Helen did. Her kindness and compassion towards these criminals is incredible, and throughout the presentation I kept thinking about the scarcity of her gift, of how rare it is to find a person with so much love and respect for others.  Her willingness to defend the dignity of every human, regardless of their actions, is truly extraordinary. She explained the difficulties of being compassionate towards these people, the judgement and anger and hatred she received from families of the victims. She told us about how difficult it was to stand by a criminal and make others understand that to show love to a murderer is not to condone his actions, but rather to see him first and foremost as a human being worthy of respect, as someone who is clearly damaged and needs help.  One of the things she said really struck me; she spoke about the torture of the death penalty. “When someone is sentenced to death,” she said, “they don’t die once. They die a thousand times.” Every night, the condemned man dreams of being dragged from his room, of the fear and the panic and the screaming and finally, death. It is torture, by any definition, and no human should ever be subjected to such agony.  As I heard about her experiences and her responses to injustice, I could hardly believe that a person could show such kindness to all people.  She really illustrated the meaning of the phrase “God is love” through her words and actions.  God is love, and she shows this to the people she encounters through her compassion and respect for the human dignity of all people.

Sr. Helen also spoke about how the death sentence is supposed to give closure to families. But it doesn't. Many people think that the injustices done by murderers or rapists cancels out when the convict is put to death. However, the pain of having lost someone you love cannot be fixed or put to rest by any act. One life cannot be swapped for another. Sr. Helen made me realize that all lives are equally important; all people have pain and all people cause pain. We cannot allow this pain to control us, and though this is definitely easier said than done, looking for forgiveness is the only way to find peace.

Sr. Helen's faith propelled her forward. Without her unrelenting trust in God, she couldn't have done what she did. She spoke to us of the sometimes-arduous spiritual journey that gave her life direction and shaped her work; she also explained how spiritual growth continues throughout our lives. We never stop learning—  learning about our ability to learn, to love, and to serve. When Sr. Helen told us the story of her service, I realized that we must find God and beauty in everything. Often, this takes courage because we have to delve into dark places where we did not expect (or, even, did not want) to find beauty. Often we are afraid of the dark, and we take the easy way around. We do our service hours in places where the work will be perhaps not easy, but predictable- normal. And there is no problem with this; that kind of service is wholly necessary. But Sr. Helen showed me that we cannot truly grow until we challenge ourselves. Imagine loving a murderer; it’s not simple or easy, but the most difficult, rawest emotions are often the truest, and this love was essential for Sr. Helen as she realized and experienced the beauty and dignity inside every person. It makes sense that Sr. Helen was inspired by her love for God to give of herself to his people, for that is exactly what the manifestation of God’s love looks like: in simple terms, helping others, with humility and empathy.

Finally, Sr. Helen spoke about movements and issues that we, as the next generation of young women, should pay attention to. She spoke about some broad issues, like the cycle of poverty, which leads to a lack of education and a lack of resources for many in our country. By allowing this, we deny the inherent dignity in all people; murder is not the only way to break the commandment: “You shall not kill.” She made me think about the many ways we can support life. She reminded me that this includes endeavoring to do our sometimes extremely difficult duty to the living: to the be compassionate, to be empathetic, to serve by giving of ourselves from the depths of our souls. Sr. Helen also spoke about more specific issues, like the Time’s Up movement and recent shootings (specifically school shootings).

Sr. Helen is a strong woman; of course, she did not tell us this herself in so many words, but by telling us about her life’s work, she showed us that in order to be at the head of female empowerment, we must empower others. Sr. Helen (and other amazing women like her) trust us to do our best to do what is right.

Sr. Helen told us that we can change the world, and I, for one, believe her. Like all other generations before us, we have our flaws. But I know so many bright, talented young men and women who dream of a better world. It is hard to believe, but we are the future, and Sr. Helen’s message today—  that, if we work together, we have the capacity to change our world for the better, to stop some terrible things, to alleviate pain and poverty—  really inspired me me. I know that we care; with grace and with guidance from men and women — like Sr. Helen— who have fought for respect for the dignity of all, we can stand together to bring about peace and justice in our society. Being the change we wish to see in the world can mean anything from changing what we have for dinner to getting rid of the death penalty. Whatever the change may be, let’s do it; let’s accept Sr. Helen’s challenge. Let’s change the world.

-Isabel Frey Ribeiro, Charlotte Kimble, Alexandra Sabrio