How can prayer vigils convert hearts and change minds about the death penalty? Sister Eileen Reilly explains.
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I'm Sister Maxine, and my guest is Sister Eileen Reilly with the Catholic Mobilizing Network. As its name suggests, the Network mobilizes people across the country to value life over death, to end the death penalty, and to transform the US criminal justice system and society to embrace restoration and healing instead of punishment. Among the many groups the Catholic Mobilizing Network works with are congregations of Catholic Sisters. Sister Eileen, in her role as religious engagement associate, helps Catholic Sisters nationwide in their efforts to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice. I understand that one of the parishes that you served in was in Richmond, Virginia. And that's where you began working on, in particular, the issue of the death penalty. Why was Richmond such a significant place?
You know, I grew up in Massachusetts, where they had abolished the death penalty the year I was born. And so I never thought about it. It wasn't an issue, it wasn't in the news, it just wasn't something I thought about. And all of a sudden, I moved to Virginia, where they were competing with Texas to see who could execute the most people in those days. And it just felt so personal to me. I felt like the state of Virginia was saying, "Eileen, we want to keep you safer. And so we're gonna kill this man tonight." And I didn't feel any safer after that execution. I mean, it was just because it was right there. And at that point, the electric chair for Virginia was in downtown Richmond. So any night there was an execution, a group of us would go down and stand outside the prison and protest what was going on. And on the opposite side of the street would be the people who were cheering what was going on. So it was just such a wake-up call. And it began also my education about the broken death penalty system that exists in this country. There were questions: were some of the people that were executed innocent? Just things like that arose that got me started. So as I tried to learn more and more, and went to a couple of conferences, and so forth, I became acquainted with some murder victims' family members. And of course, they're the most powerful voices against the death penalty. Because when I would give this talk or you know, try to talk to people about my position, invariably, somebody would say, "Well, if it was your mother..." Well, here, I met some people, and it was their mother who was killed or their sister or their brother or their daughter, and they still could stand against the death penalty. So that was just such a powerful, powerful witness.
What were some of the reasons that you heard from them about why they remained opposed, even though this issue touched their life in such a deeply personal way?
One of them is, if someone's sentenced to death, there is and there should be an immediate appeal process to make sure that the state got it right. But the victims were saying that appeal process could drag on for years. The story would be back in the news for years. If the person just got life in prison, we never heard anything more about that person, and we could try to get on with our lives. So that was a big one. Another one was people realizing, "If I lost my daughter to murder, is murdering your son gonna help me at all?" No, it isn't. I mean, the most classic case like that is a man named Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. And eventually--after many years, it took a while--Bud befriended Timothy McVeigh's father, because Timothy McVeigh's father was about to lose his son. And Bud knew what it was like to lose a child from having lost his daughter, Julie, in Oklahoma City. And those two men became friends. They were a great support for each other. You know, as I say, if anybody can understand what it means to lose a child, Bud certainly could.
You mentioned a prayer vigil as well. In the face of all of this, what difference do you think a prayer vigil could make? And for the people who attended, what difference did it make for the issue and for everyone involved?
First of all, we believe that prayer is important. One of the most dramatic instances of responses I could give to that question is at Catholic Mobilizing Network, we held a prayer vigil last year, on every one of the days, the 13 days in which there was a federal execution. And after one of those executions, we heard from a lawyer in Texas who said, "I have clients on federal death row, and I have clients on Texas death row. And some of my clients have been executed. On the day of an execution, I keep myself very busy and try not to think about it. What a difference it made to me this time to spend an hour of that day in prayer with you." She just thanked us so profoundly for calling her to do something other than just keep herself busy. And as we lament what's going on, we pray for the victims, the victims' families, the person being executed. It brings it closer to us, it brings it into our hearts in a way that I think is important. At Catholic Mobilizing, our goal is to abolish the death penalty across this country in every state. And that's going to be done state by state, legislature by legislature. So as we build up a body of people who are committed to that task with us, prayer as an important part of it.
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This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.