ONLY BY FORGIVING ARE WE FORGIVEN: A REFLECTION ON CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

By a St. John Vianney Parishioner

Pope Francis asked that 2015 be “a year of love and mercy.” With the celebration of Christmas and New Year fast-approaching, we must not only keep in mind the birth of our Savior, but His death on the cross as well – “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”

After receiving an email from the Office of Justice at the Diocese of Galveston-Houston regarding a legislative conference on the death penalty in Texas, I knew that our Lord wanted me to attend. The conference was being held at the State Capitol in Austin, and, try as I might, I was unable to get anyone from the Houston area to join me.

On the 23rd of October, the month proclaimed as Respect Life Month (“from the womb to the tomb”), I left home early in the morning while it was still dark, driving in torrential rain.  As I usually do, I prayed while I drove and thought about what God calls us to do.

We are called to respect the dignity of all persons, because we are all “children of God,” and only He can and will judge us for the life paths we have chosen. The Omnipotent is the one who has walked with us on our journey.  He taught us that “to err is human, to forgive is Divine.”

Looking back in Texas history to the days of the Alamo brings to mind the neighborhood movie theater and watching old black-and-white movies about the vigilantes of the time. Good guys wore white hats and rode white horses.  Bad guys had dark hats, dark horses.  Are we stuck in the past, or are we on the “journey to mercy?”  Words to a song: “There aren’t no good guys, there aren’t no bad guys, there’s only you and me…” provoke thought.

As Christians, we recite our Lord’s Prayer, “… forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Do we mean what we pray?  In the Bible there is the story of a woman who was to be stoned to death, according to the Law of Moses, for her transgression.  Jesus confronted her accusers, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast the stone.” Do we follow the example of Jesus?

Being a Catholic parent, I told my young son, “We can judge a person’s action, but not the person.” We do not know what causes a person to do what they do – Sickness?  Anger?  Hatred?  Vengeance?

Little by little, states are doing away with capital punishment. People have been put to death after wrongfully being accused of having committed a crime.  According to one of the speakers at the Conference, 140 inmates, including twelve in Texas, have left death row since 1973 after their convictions were overturned.  These individuals were exonerated from death row due to evidence of their wrongful conviction.  The speaker also mentioned that “Texas holds the highest number of DNA exonerations, with 52, since 1994 – 45 exonerations since 2001.” Even so, “Texas accounts for more than one-third of executions nationwide since 1977 (528 out of 1,416), which includes 3 executions by the federal government.” The cost of capital punishment must also be considered.  The average death penalty case in Texas “costs nearly three times more than life imprisonment.”

I shall not forget the legislative luncheon guest speaker at the Conference. Marietta Jeager-Lane gave us a vivid account of when her family had driven from Michigan to Montana for their vacation, a camping trip.  While they were sleeping in their tents, “an immensely ill man” kidnapped and later murdered the youngest child.  Susan was only seven years old.

Through the grace of God, Marietta was able to forgive the man who murdered her daughter. Her husband was not holding on to his anger, and he died young.  The sick murderer committed suicide in prison.  Marietta visited his mother, embraced her, and said: “We have both lost a child.”

Another panel speaker was Deacon Richard Lopez, a former death row chaplain who spoke about administering to the incarcerated. In time, he notices a positive change among those convicted to die.  The inmates had developed “God-centered relationships.”

The root causes of crime include unsafe housing, unemployment, lack of education, and lack of mental health services. Rather than treating a symptom, we need to focus on those root causes for this problem.  As a society, we must seek to restore a sense of civility and responsibility to everyday life, and promote crime prevention and genuine rehabilitation.

St. Maria Goretti, only twelve when she was attacked and stabbed with a dagger, forgave the young man on her deathbed. More recently, the Robert Kennedy family forgave Sirhan Sirhan for the assassination of the U.S. Senator.  While Pope, St. John Paul II went to the prison and forgave the man who nearly killed him.  Yes, only by forgiving are we forgiven.- An SJV Parishioner.

Just as he has done on multiple occasions, Pope Francis made it a point to address the topic of criminal justice during his first visit to the United States. Coming as a “messenger of God’s love for a broken world and as a beacon of hope, mercy, and justice,” he leads the way by example, washing the feet of adult and juvenile prisoners.  To further follow his example, let us refer to the USCCB’s position on restorative justice, sentencing reform, and countering recidivism.

The Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death also presents us with very compelling arguments on why we, as Catholics, need to promote and uphold the respect for the dignity of every human being even in the most difficult of circumstances. In their publication, “What Every Catholic Should Know About the Death Penalty”, they provide us with the facts and statistics as to who is affected by capital punishment, its cost ($118.5 million per year over and above the costs of keeping convicts locked up for life), how “just” the Justice System really is, and what we can do to change things.  In addition, they also enlighten us as to what Scripture and Catholic Teaching have to say about the death penalty.  Finally, just like the account about forgiveness from a victim’s family in our parishioner’s reflection, this article provides us also with some sobering and lasting words from another victim’s family:

“By the time Shannon’s murderer was captured four years later, we had learned that pursuing the death penalty would not be the way we would want to honor our daughter’s life, nor would that decision have helped us deal with the painful reminders of her unfulfilled hopes and dreams… Facing the reality of her death made us realize that the sacredness of life was not an abstract concept. Ultimately we concluded that if we couldn’t stand by our principles when it was excruciatingly difficult, then they were not our principles at all.  We took a stand to oppose the use of capital punishment for our daughter’s murder.”