Note: October is Respect for Life Month. We wanted to share with you a piece written by our Justice Promoter, Sister Barbara Battista, SP, she composed for The Catholic Moment, the diocesan publication for the Diocese of Lafayette, Ind. It is an updated version of a piece Sister Barbara composed In October 2020.
I watched a man die. He wanted someone to be there for him. Someone not on the killing team. September 22, 2020, at 9:06 p.m., in the execution chamber of the United States Penitentiary (USP) in Terre Haute, Ind., Mr. William Emmet LeCroy, Jr., took his last breath strapped down, flat on his back, on a slightly tilted cruciform table in a room full of windows. Five of us shared that room. Will, defenseless and completely at the mercy of his executioner, had asked me to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet with him. He asked me to continue to pray it, out loud, as the executioner began his death-dealing infusion. And I did. I wonder if the warden, the U.S. Marshal, or the executioner were silently praying these words with me? I know Will was.
I met Will near the end of August. We were introduced through Keith Dwayne Nelson, a man whose life was taken on Aug. 28, inside that very same chamber. The Bureau of Prisons conducts these executions in a highly orchestrated manner. Nothing is left to chance. The staff is kind, solicitous even. Many are in PPE. A few have only a good-fitting mask on for protection. My overriding impression is that of a stark environment, devoid of human emotion, calm, and eerily quiet while an act of extreme violence is being inflicted upon another human being … a person whom Jesus referred to when enjoining us to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”
Sadly, Terre Haute is the killing fields for the federal government. The federal government inflicted revenge killing, or executions, on 13 persons from July 13, 2020, to January 15, 2021. Thankfully, a few months later, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a moratorium on federal executions. While this moratorium falls short of abolishing the death penalty, it does at least give the 45 or so residents of federal death row a bit of breathing room. It also gives all of us more time to work to abolish the death penalty once and for all.
The Bishops of Indiana, along with numerous other Bishops, have spoken out against the death penalty. As have religious communities across the country, including my own, the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. My faith and the teachings of our Church compel me to say “No!” to the death penalty and to work to abolish it.
Pope Francis, in 2017, approved the following revision to paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “… the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” We are called to respect the human dignity of all persons. Those on death row are no exception. The Holy Father, in September 2022, invited us all to join him in praying for the global abolition of the death penalty.
Pope Francis reminds us that true justice requires a window of hope, an opportunity for restoration which honors the dignity of life. My ever so brief time with Will helped me to see how vitality important hope is. And how prayer, supportive friends, and an open heart can be fertile ground for a peaceful and loving existence. Will had hope even as the day of his execution was upon him.
Will mailed his last words to me which, as Providence would have it, came the day after he was executed. At a press conference the morning of Sept. 24, when Christopher Vialva would be executed later that day, I spoke Williams’ last words. He quoted from his spiritual guides – Thomas Merton, Pema Chodron and others. From Kahil Gibran, in The Prophet, Will identified an essential truth: “But I say that even as the Holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each of you, so the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the lowest which is in you also.”
A ‘Teachable’ Moment
I believe Will LeCroy can teach us an essential truth: Who among us deserves to be labeled, judged, discarded even, according to the worst thing we ever did? Rather are we not called to honor human dignity and extend God’s loving design to all creation, to all persons? Surely just as we know that God loves us always and is never far from us, so are we called to love on another always, no matter what.
I urge you to join me in working to abolish the death penalty. Join Pope Francis in praying for the global abolition of the death penalty. Let us move into this work with a renewed commitment to truly be brother or sister to all members of the human community. Let us never tire from offering mercy, from being merciful, and doing whatever we can to end the scourge of capital punishment on this our human community. Together we can forge a path towards restorative justice, a justice where hope flourishes and all life is honored and respected.
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