More Spiritual Reflections

Spiritual Reflections


Voices for Life

Sr. Anne Munley, IHM
IHM Center, Scranton, PA
October 12, 2005

The following reflection was offered at an evening of prayer marking the release of the IHM Congregation corporate stance against the use of death penalty.

We are gathered here this evening as followers of Jesus the Son of the Living God who came into this world so that all may have life to the full. We are gathered here to raise our voices in support of a consistent ethic of life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. We are gathered here to proclaim publicly our commitment to work for the abolition of capital punishment. We are gathered here to acknowledge our personal and social sinfulness and to begin the Lenten journey of returning with all our hearts to the God who never gives up on any of us. We are gathered here to remember that the foundational core of the Christian life is a call to love as God loves – unconditionally and with compassion.

Ash Wednesday with its poignant symbols of ashes and the cross gifts us with a new opportunity to forgive and be forgiven, to become reconciled with God and one another and to bring the healing and liberating message of the Gospel to life in a society in which voices for death too often prevail. As IHM sisters, our spirituality is rooted in passionate belief in the redeeming power of love. It is this belief that impels us at this time to stand in solidarity in opposition to the death penalty.

While our hearts are attuned to victims of violence, we stand against the death penalty because: 1) it violates the right to life as proclaimed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights; 2) it is not a deterrent to crime; 3) its application is discriminating to the poor and minorities; 4) it is an irreversible punishment that has resulted in the execution of innocent persons, and 5) it undermines respect for life and perpetuates the cycle of violence.

In addition to these reasons, we oppose capital punishment because it diminishes us as a society and as people. With Bishop Fiorenza, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, we believe that capital punishment, legalized abortion and assisted suicide foster a culture of death by suggesting that some lives are expendable. Such a message contrasts sharply with Jesus' message of life and love.

The gospel reading we have just heard invites us to far more than "eye for an eye" illusions of justice. It calls us to be compassionate as God is compassionate, to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us. This is a far cry from thinking that we can overcome violence by executing criminals or that we can defend life by taking life. In this passage from Matthew, Jesus is challenging us to choose life in accord with a new code of love.

In this holy time of Lent there is much to ponder as well in Jesus' encounter with the penitent thief on Calvary. It was an encounter of innocence and guilt, truth and forgiveness, grace and transformation, love and redemption. Let us listen to Luke's account of the conversation of the three men condemned to die on Calvary, especially to the words of Jesus, an itinerant teacher unjustly sentenced to death, and of Dismas, a self-described criminal who turned to Jesus in hope:

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one his left . . .

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying: "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him saying: "Do you not fear God since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And Jesus replied: "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

This passage is a beautiful expression of the transformative power of love. Isn't it curious that it was the repentant thief who called Jesus by name? He was the only one who raised his voice on Calvary in defense of Jesus. In confessing his guilt, he experienced redemption and the cross became of tree of life. Dismas is a compelling example of conversion and receptivity to grace. All he asked in faith and humility was that Jesus remember him.

And how did Jesus respond? He gave him far more than he asked. Though he himself was in the full agony of death, Jesus had room in his heart for the suffering of another. Jesus saw the possibility in Dismas, he looked upon him with love and uttered words of grace and mercy: "Today, you will be with me in Paradise." Dismas was completely forgiven and sanctified by the purifying power of a death in and with Jesus. He came to know Jesus as a fellow sufferer who understands because of love. His encounter with Jesus is a lesson in compassion and forgiveness.

This night as we reflect on the sacredness of life and on the IHM corporate stance of opposition to the death penalty, our times call us to compassionate solidarity with men and women currently awaiting execution – all potential recipients of God's limitless mercy. God and human beings continue to meet in human suffering.

God and human beings continue to meet in human suffering. As long as there is breath, there is possibility of redemption.

What lesson of conversion, love and forgiveness might we learn from Anthony Braden Bryan, age 40, who less than two weeks ago, after 13 years on death row, made this statement in a Florida death chamber just moments before his execution by lethal injection?: " I would like to say that no matter what you do in your life, God can make a difference in your life. He's made a difference in mine. You always can be redeemed."

Jesus' great compassion toward people who are suffering teaches us that when human beings whom God loves suffer, God is present with them. If God is there, resisting evil and willing life wherever people are being damaged, then the followers of Jesus must enter into the same reality. The death and resurrection of Jesus are a clear sign that God's final word toward human beings is not one of anger or of vengeance but of mercy.

This Lent, as we journey to Jerusalem in remembrance of Jesus, let us continue to keep before us some burning questions of unconditional love and compassion: How much room do I have in my heart for the suffering of others? How strong a voice am I willing to be for more humane and effective ways to treat perpetrators of violent crimes? What contribution am I willing to make to reform our criminal justice system? Every time there is a choice to be made for or against life, do I have the courage and integrity to choose life? As persons of faith, may we become strong and persistent voices for life!