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Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of the congregation of St. Joseph, who has worked in prison ministry and against the death penalty for decades, is seen in this 2016 file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)Editors’ note: What do Bishop Robert E. Barron, two well-known Jesuit priests and two leading religious sisters in the United States have in common this pandemic year? All five confessed to binge-watching “The Crown.” Although, in a series of interviews, by phone and email, America has learned that the similarities among these prominent members of the U.S. Catholic Church are not limited to watching British period dramas on Netflix. If nothing else, all five are agreed that 2020 has been quite the year for spiritual revelation and renewal. The interviews have been edited for clarity and length.More in this series: -What got Father James Martin through 2020-What got Bishop Robert Barron through 2020-What got Father Greg Boyle through 2020-What got Sister Simone Campbell through 2020Seventeen people were put to death in the United States this year, a heinous practice that Helen Prejean, C.S.J, a vowed religious sister who said her mission is to “wake up the American public to end the death penalty,” has pursued for almost 40 years. And despite it all, Sister Prejean’s hope amid such inhumanity remains intact.Could you name a phrase, quote, story, analogy or image that captures how you have experienced 2020?My younger brother Louis—he is five years younger than me—got Covid-19 and he is now, I think, in his last days. He got a secondary infection and he is in a medically induced coma. I believe my little brother is going to God in a short matter of time. So certainly, this pandemic has reached our own family—my own life. That is the most huge thing for 2020, my little brother, Louis.For what are you most grateful as you look back over the year and why?Let me tell you about a gift that the pandemic gave to me. Since 1993, when “Dead Man Walking” came out, I have been on the road, traveling across the United States, in Europe and other countries in the work of abolition. From September to May. This year, I came back to New Orleans on March 12 and I haven’t been on a plane since. And that has been a tremendous gift—when I couldn’t travel and I was home in New Orleans. It’s a very delicious thing.Since 1993, I have been on the road. This year, I came back to New Orleans on March 12 and I haven’t been on a plane since. It’s a very delicious thing.What did you take for granted this year? What did this reveal to you about yourself and your presence in our world?I don’t know if I want to say “take for granted” because that doesn’t sound like you are grateful. But what I knew I could bank on—more than anything—were the Sisters of St. Joseph and good friends. So I stay very close to them. God’s presence is so pervasive in so many things. Certainly that God has given me a good family, good sisters and friendship. I think God is friendship. I mean, the nature of the relationship of what we call the Trinity is God in relationship. Close relationships and being connected to people in an intimate, close way is what I think of most when I think of God.I also stay connected to Manuel Ortiz on death row in Louisiana. He is going on 30 years on death row—and [I believe] he is innocent. That has been a really hard thing for him, for all the people in prison. With Covid-19, you cannot visit in person. So I utilize every means: to email him, get him on the phone every week and stay connected with him. So that is God for me. God is that connection—staying faithful to [Mr. Ortiz]. He is an unbelievable, wonderful human being—and innocent. All the lies that were told at this trial and so on. When we talk, often I work with him on everything I can, to let him express his frustration and what we can possibly do to move things in the courts.Close relationships and being connected to people in an intimate, close way is what I think of most when I think of God.What prayer or spiritual practice sustained you this year?Well, it’s the one I have always followed, especially in the morning, to take time for prayer and to read the Scripture of the day and to meditate with it. Also, listening to music, especially [Handel’s] “Messiah,” I think I can hear every strain of it by heart. In Advent, I prayed with it.And then a great gift, a friend gave me a book called Sabbath, by Wayne Muller. It’s about shutting down phones and really moving into solitude. And so I began the practice, maybe about three months ago: On Sundays, I turn off my phone—I don’t listen to it in the morning till the evening—and take a Sabbath day. And it’s a freewheeling day; I can read, I can go to sleep. But I don’t work, because there’s plenty of work I’m doing from home: I’m Zooming with groups, creating new models of conversation around the books. Since I can’t travel, just having a free Sabbath day has been a great gift.With Zoom, I’m having plenty of meetings, so just to carve out that day has been a tremendous blessing for me. When we get that “rush” feeling, “I gotta do this, I gotta do this now”—that’s not Sabbath! That rush feeling comes from an over-productive, nervous, trying to get stuff done [place], and…. The minute when you shut that down, and time is open-ended, it’s like a well that just keeps filling. And it’s expansive. It gives you a free feeling inside, about time, instead of being closed-off and cramped and “hurry up and get this done” because you ran out of time.I began the practice, maybe about three months ago: On Sundays, I turn off my phone—I don’t listen to it in the morning till the evening—and take a Sabbath day.What new hobby did you take up during the most intense months of lockdown? Was there an old pastime you revived?I have been doing some serious and wonderful Cajun cooking—and enjoying it. You know, when I was out on the road out there, there’s nothing like Louisiana food.We have seafood. We have wonderful food and wonderful recipes. [My favorites are] either fillet or catfish or trout. There’s a way you can pan fry it: Put a little olive oil in your pan and you season it—there’s a great Cajun seasoning called Tony Chachere’s—then you dust it lightly with flour, pan-fry it very lightly, and then sprinkle fresh parsley and whatever else. But, I shouldn’t be talking about this right now because it’s making me hungry!What is the most important thing that the year of Covid-19 has taught you?Well, it is of course, Louis. It’s the preciousness of life. To lose my little brother, that is the biggest thing. That overshadows everything else.Tell us the funniest thing that happened to you this year. I don’t think I can summon up the funniest thing that happened this year. I mean, humor is a big part of my life and the telling of jokes and funny stories, which I do with my friends. But I don’t know if I can summon what I would call the funniest story. It’s just not real for me to try to answer that.I have been doing some serious and wonderful Cajun cooking. There’s nothing like Louisiana food.What did God teach you this pandemic year, or was there an old God lesson that you were reminded about?I have, right here in my living room, Fra Angelico’s “The Annunciation.” It has been a great annunciation for me that the federal executions could really expose the flaw that has been the death penalty from the very beginning. Annunciation started pouring into me about what is my response to what these federal executions mean.For 17 years on federal death row there were no executions. Along comes President Donald Trump, with his attorney general, William Barr, and suddenly they’ve killed 10 people and are trying to kill three more. When you do not have prosecutors that seek death, people do not die. When you get prosecutors that are gung-ho to seek death, as we see in Trump [people die]. And we also can see it in the states: Bob Macy [former Oklahoma County district attorney], was single-handedly responsible for 54 human beings going to death row in Oklahoma County. To put this kind of godlike power of life or death in an individual’s hands—who is faulty, broken, biased, prejudiced, partially-seeing human being—has highlighted that we can’t be entrusting the death penalty to anybody.In the Catholic Church, we now have an official teaching that you can never entrust to government—no matter how great the crime—the right to take life. And this annunciation, or this clarity of it, coincides with the first time we, in the Catholic Church, have an official teaching that you can never entrust to government—no matter how great the crime—the right to take life. That has been a 1,500-year dialogue in the Catholic Church; where in August of 2018, you finally have Pope Francis announce that the Catechism was to be changed.So, thank God we have Joe Biden—Catholic Joe Biden, that I call a real, comprehensive Catholic. A Catholic who cares about life and cares about human rights and has openly declared that he is not going to carry out federal executions. And I hope that it’s also going to give us the incentive to work [nationwide] to finish off the death penalty in the United States. We’ve been gaining in knowledge and experience about the death penalty in the United States. There are 172 wrongfully convicted people who got off of death row. So all these things are feeding the consciousness and conscience of the country. In a very dramatic way, all of it is helping us to shut the death penalty down.I feel like God is just bringing my work, our work—the work of all those who work for human rights—to fruition. And I can see the end in sight, where we’re going to end government-sanctioned killing.Where do you sense God’s presence and call to our world as we look to the new year?We have a nation to rebuild. I believe huge damage has been done during the Trump administration. We need to join the World Health Organization again; we need to be part of the Paris [Agreement] again; we need to put way at the top of the list, of course, dealing with Covid-19. We need national leadership on that; we need the resources of our government to help people who’ve lost their jobs and are hurting; and we need to deal with the race issue in this country.George Floyd, through his, hopefully, redemptive death, exposed—in that eight minute and 46 second video—the systemic racism that has been part of the police force in the United States for a long time. We have had a huge waking up. There is a lot of hope bubbling up in our country because we’re becoming conscious of systemic problems that we need to deal with, that we have not dealt with in a long long time.So I sense a waking-up and God calling us in 2021 to move ahead and to deal with these life issues, to truly be a pro-life people across the board. For innocent life and then also for penal reform that has to happen. We are the largest incarcerator in the world—and it is directly coming from slavery. So we’ve got a full agenda, but it is hopeful. We had more people that turned out to vote in this past election than we have ever had, and when we see the people awake about that and participating, it gives me hope for democracy as well.We have a nation to rebuild. I believe huge damage has been done during the Trump administration.Final words of wisdom on 2020 going on 2021?Hope is an active verb. You don’t have hope if you just stand on the sidelines. Hope springs through us, when we begin to act and are engaged.The book you couldn’t put down?I read a book called Lincoln on the Verge, by Ted Widmer. It was like a time of crisis in the country similar to the one we’ve had recently. Lincoln was elected president, and [the book follows] his train ride for 13 days to Washington, D.C., to be inaugurated.There were plots of assassination all along the way. He rode on this train, would stop in all these towns and millions of people came out to the tracks to see him. He made the presidency accessible to people and would speak from the back of the train or keep going to receptions in cities, and people would flock, and he would talk to them.It was the first experience of dealing with someone who could talk to them in words they understood. He did not use political bombast. He just spoke to people in plain good language. He spoke the truth. He represented the future of the country. And it was a real time of crisis, because while he’s on the train going to Washington, D.C., he had Jefferson Davis making his way to Montgomery to set up a separate nation that would be based on white supremacy. It’s really a fascinating book, and I couldn’t put it down.Hope is an active verb. You don’t have hope if you just stand on the sidelines. Hope springs through us, when we begin to act and are engaged.The film or documentary that changed you this year? Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is the one that I would hold up.A series that you have binge-watched?“The Queen’s Gambit.” I was fascinated by it, and “The Crown” on Netflix. That was really well done. Oh, man, the struggles those poor people had just for being human beings—of being able to be themselves—was hugely instructive to me.A magazine or newspaper article that deeply challenged you and forced you to question what you thought you knew or believed?This was a big revelation to me: The role that African-American people have played in this past election—and the role I think that they are going to be playing in this runoff Senate race in Georgia. I mean, absolutely, if African-American people had not turned out en masse to vote, I’m not sure we would have had Joe Biden as our presidential nominee. It made him rise so quickly, see, because he hadn’t done well in the debates, hadn’t done well in New Hampshire, Iowa or Nevada; and then he hit the primary in South Carolina.And, I was just reading this article [“Why congressman James Clyburn was the most important politician for 2020,” The Guardian] about James Clyburn. Jon Meacham, the historian, named Clyburn as the most important politician for 2020—a political trigger. He is a senator and he spoke up for Joe Biden, and Joe Biden won the primary by such a huge number. It was over 48 percent. And suddenly he just rose head and shoulders above the other candidates. And then, in the Super, super, Tuesday, he won 10 of the 14 [states].More in this series: -What got Father James Martin through 2020-What got Bishop Robert Barron through 2020-What got Father Greg Boyle through 2020-What got Sister Simone Campbell through 2020Ricardo da Silva, S.J.Ricardo da Silva, S.J., is an associate editor at America Media and an ordained Jesuit deacon from South Africa.
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