“No matter how heinous the crime, the offender retains their God given worth …” Pope John Paul II January 27, 1999
Just over a year ago, two Catholic nuns were brutally murdered in Durant, Mississippi. Sister Margaret M. Held, a School Sister of St. Francis and Sister Paula J. Merrill, a Sister of Charity of Nazareth, were beloved and committed nurse practitioners serving some of the poorest children and families in the country. The community health clinic where they worked is in the 7th poorest county in the country, in the hungriest and poorest state in our nation.
The sisters’ ministry embodied what the Church calls “preferential option for the poor.” The senseless loss of these sisters has caused tremendous pain for their families, their local clients and their religious communities.
If you have followed this story at any length, likely you have been captivated by the courageous, Christ-like response the sisters’ religious Congregations shared following the murder, in part: “We want to reiterate our beliefs as women of faith, that we
value life. For years now the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the School Sisters of St. Francis have worked to abolish the death penalty, even as we seek justice and truth.”
Close family members and fellow sisters alike say that coming forward with a statement to oppose the death penalty was clear and certain for them. Given the strong faith held convictions and the life-long healing ministries of Sr. Paula and Sr. Margaret, everyone immediately understood the merciful action the sisters themselves would have wanted to respond to such a tragedy.
The modern Catholic Church is against the death penalty; the last three Popes have made the Church’s opposition very clear. And while more Catholics are opposed to the death penalty than ever, statistics reveal that upwards of 43% of U.S. Catholics still support capital punishment. Given this sobering reality, the response made by the families and sisters is even more courageous an example for us and witness for our times.
The truth is death penalty is coming to an end and the time is now to make a difference.
As we observe Respect Life Month this October, we are invited to reflect on the depth of our convictions related to dignity of all life and our pro-life stance. At the time of this writing, a disturbing 5 executions are scheduled throughout October. These executions demand action. Catholic Mobilizing Network’s Mercy in Action Project is an easy way to direct your faithful advocacy to end the death penalty and take a stand for life.
Respect Life Month is the perfect time to recommit yourself to our faith’s pro-life call. To facilitate this, CMN has created a Respect Life Month Toolkit to help your church or small group renew its dedication to all life. The toolkit also contains CMN’s new initiative, the National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty, a great way to begin your advocacy for all life; consider signing the pledge if you haven’t already.
In their living, Sr. Paula and Sr. Margaret sought to heal people on the margins of society. In their dying these sisters left their legacy of life – lived, shared and sacrificed; a story we recognize by our faith in Jesus Christ.
Copyright 2017 Krisanne Villaincourt Murphy
About the author: Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy is Managing Director of Catholic Mobilizing Network. She is co-author of Advocating for Justice: An Evangelical Vision for Transforming Systems and Structures.