- Catholic Common Ground Initiative - https://catholiccommonground.org -

2016 Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Award

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Award Citation

June 24th, 2016

Sr. Helen Prejean, C.S.J.

32 years ago, yesterday, on June 23rd, 1984, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin delivered an address to the General Annual Meeting of Amnesty International entitled, “The Death Penalty: An International Human Rights Issue.” The Cardinal’s address lifted up the dignity of the human person and highlighted the value of each and every human life. As he states:

In a world marked by violence and often a disregard for the dignity of the person, the state must protect its people and the key values of its society, but it should do so in a way that promotes reverence for the life of each person.

This evening, we have the privilege of honoring a woman whose daily life embodies these essential values.

Sr. Helen Prejean, C.S.J., is no stranger to this community. She has traveled around the nation for over 30 years sparking dialogue about the death penalty and has been highly influential in our own Catholic Church’s response to state executions.

Sr. Prejean received her calling to work among the marginalized when, as a young member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, she moved into ministry at the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans and worked at the Hope House from 1981 to 1984. 

While in New Orleans, Sr. Prejean began writing to an inmate on death row, and eventually became his spiritual advisor. Her highly acclaimed book, entitled, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, is a result of her experience journeying with and witnessing this man’s execution. The book has since been produced for film, opera, and theater.

Sr. Prejean’s ministry, centered on the death penalty, has taken two major focal points: public education about the death penalty and the counseling of death row prisoners. Sr. Prejean has accompanied six men to their deaths. These experiences led her to question whether any of these men were truly guilty.  In response, she wrote, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. Here she challenges the entire process of capital punishment.

In the very last paragraph of the founding document of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, Called to Be Catholic, Cardinal Bernardin challenges Catholics to participate in our faith through encounter, engagement, and dialogue, stating:

It is imperative that the Catholic Church in the United States confront the issues and forces that are shaping the future. For this, we must draw on all the gifts of wisdom and understanding in the church, and all the charisms of leadership and communion. Each of us will be tested by encounters with cultures and viewpoints not our own; all of us will be refined in the fires of genuine engagement; and the whole church will be strengthened for its mission in the new millennium.

Sr. Prejean embodies this mission to lead our church into wisdom and understanding around critical issues such as the death penalty. Her life’s work has been an encounter with those our country deems disposable. She has engaged the public in her pursuit for justice. And she has done all of this through dialogue.

With deep appreciation for her extraordinary contributions to the life of the church and her longstanding and abiding commitment to fostering dialogue around the death penalty, the Catholic Common Ground Initiative is proud to present its 2016 Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Award to Sr. Helen Prejean, C.S.J., on the twenty-fourth day of June, in the year of Our Lord two thousand and sixteen.­