November 15, 2019

At prayer vigil, Archbishop Thompson recognizes dignity of those on death row to be executed

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson offers a reflection at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Terre Haute on Nov. 5 during a prayer vigil for the federal prisoners scheduled for execution in December and January at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson offers a reflection at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Terre Haute on Nov. 5 during a prayer vigil for the federal prisoners scheduled for execution in December and January at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

TERRE HAUTE—Nearly 100 people were bathed in light as they gathered in Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Terre Haute on the evening of Nov. 5.

But despite the lights and bright glow, the tone of those present was heavy and somber. They were gathered to pray for the federal death-row inmates and all those affected by their pending executions scheduled for December and January at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, not far from the church.

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson led the faithful in an hourlong prayer vigil before the Blessed Sacrament.

“It’s so important that we pray before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament tonight,” he said in a reflection he offered as part of the service. “What needs to remain constant is keeping Christ at the center, so that we are always aware of our dignity and the dignity of others, whether it be perpetrators of horrible crimes, or their victims, or their families, or those who work in correctional facilities.”

‘Jesus saw the same dignity in both’

Christ must remain the constant, but Church doctrine can develop, the archbishop noted. He explained that when Pope Francis announced in August 2018 that the death penalty was no longer admissible, it wasn’t a decision the pontiff “just pulled out of the air.”

“It was something that had been developing through the papacy of St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI,” Archbishop Thompson said. “And this is a doctrine that developed along with the development of society.”

Such advances in the penal system have led to the current state in which “there is no longer the threat that there was 20 or 30 years ago in [inmates] escaping.

“And so our doctrine develops along with our society—and that’s frustrating for some,” Archbishop Thompson noted. “Some of us like very black and white ways of living.”

So it was in the time of Christ, he said. There were clear rules with no exceptions: a woman caught committing adultery was to be stoned—no exceptions. A tax collector like Zacchaeus was a traitor and therefore a sinner—no exceptions.

“But Jesus came along and started changing things, mixing things up,” said the archbishop. “People saw the sin and the sinner. Jesus knew [Zaccheaeus’] sin, but he also saw the dignity of a child of God. … When they were getting ready to stone the woman caught committing adultery, people saw a sinner. Jesus saw the dignity of a daughter of God.”

To give a more current example, Archbishop Thompson shared that in the span of two weeks he gave viaticum—a term used for the Eucharist given to a dying person during their final rites—to both his elderly aunt and to a Catholic man slated for execution.

“In the time of Jesus, when Romans buried someone, they put a coin in their mouth,” he explained. “The coin was meant to pay the toll to the next life.

“Viaticum for Christians is the way of saying Jesus paid the price. He’s paid our toll from this life to the next.

“When I gave viaticum last week to my aunt who was dying in a hospital bed in her home, and when I gave viaticum to this inmate through the prison bars, Jesus saw the same dignity in both of them.

“And so we pray that the Lord continue to not only transform society, transform our country, transform the injustice surrounding the death penalty, but to continue to transform our hearts and our witness to the dignity and sacredness of every human person.”

The sermon was followed by prayers of petition for families of all those facing execution; for civic leaders to commit to respecting every human life from conception to natural death and to ending the use of the death penalty; and for those who work in the prison system.

As for the five men facing execution, they were prayed for by name, including their current execution date: Daniel Lewis Lee, Dec. 9; Wesley Ira Purkey, Dec. 13; Alfred Bourgeois, Jan. 13, 2020; Dustin Lee Honken, Jan. 15, 2020; and Lezmond Mitchell, whose execution date has been “stayed,” or delayed.

‘There’s just a heaviness to it all’

In an interview with The Criterion after the prayer vigil, Archbishop Thompson shared more about problems with the death penalty beyond its immorality.

“The poor don’t have the means to defend themselves [legally], so they’re more likely to end up on death row,” he said. “And we know there have been instances where [people] have been found guilty and found later to be innocent, sometimes after they’d already been executed.

“And we also know that the carrying out of the execution doesn’t go smoothly. It tortures not just the person, but everyone who’s there to witness it.”

He also spoke personally about his hourlong visit recently with the Catholic inmate scheduled for execution, a visit the man requested.

“Doors closing and opening, keys rattling and all the security—there’s just a heaviness to it all,” he described.

The convicted man was received into the full communion of the Church about eight years ago, “a credit to the Sister of Providence who visited with him,” the archbishop said. With Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, the order’s motherhouse, just west of Terre Haute, several of the sisters are involved in prison ministry at the federal correctional facility.

“I was impressed with this man,” Archbishop Thompson said. He described him as “very intelligent” with “a good sense of Scripture and theology.

“And yet, what he was convicted of was a horrible crime. … It’s a lot of mixed emotions,” he admitted.

An ‘unnecessary taking of human life’

Sacred Heart parish life coordinator Barbara Black admits that within the parish, reactions to the upcoming executions have been mixed.

“Some think they should not do capital punishment,” she said. “But those who’ve worked in the prison system are for it. They know what these prisoners have done. … You kind of understand where they’re coming from, but the bottom line is [that] every life is sacred.”

Black helped organize the prayer vigil with Deacon Steven Gretencord, who is assigned to the parish. Prison ministry is among his several ministries at Sacred Heart.

When asked about the men scheduled for execution, he explained he only knew the one who is Catholic because “in the federal system, you only minister to people who have declared [your] faith tradition.”

The man is “resigned to his fate,” Deacon Steve said. “He is far more concerned about his family than he is about himself. He’s approaching it very prayerfully. He’s very calm at this point. … He was very touched that the archbishop would take time out of his schedule to visit him.”

Deacon Steve noted that the prayers of the people of the archdiocese, as well as those of others from around the country who oppose the death penalty, are “a powerful, powerful source of inspiration and hope” for the convicted Catholic man.

Among those praying is Katie Rahman, a member of St. Patrick Parish in Terre Haute, who participated in the prayer vigil.

She said she wanted to come to the service “because we’ve been praying as a family, my husband, our son and I, when we heard that federal executions were going to start up again here, in our hometown, at the federal penitentiary. We wanted to pray for those facing execution, for conversion of hearts, and peace and consolation for the victims and their families.

“It was really important for us to teach our son, who is 11, that that’s not how we give justice to people, and that that’s not what Jesus would do. Killing someone is not going to make up for what they did, and it’s not going to help [the victim].”

Jerry Moorman, pastoral associate of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Terre Haute since 1997, agreed with Rahman.

“Those people on death row can be redeemed just like you and me,” said Moorman after the vigil.

He recalled the last time the federal death penalty was carried out in Terre Haute, the 2001 executions of Timothy McVeigh and Juan Raul Garza.

“It affected me, knowing at that hour [around 7 a.m.] on those two days, someone was being put to death within our parish. … I just felt a knot in my stomach at those times.”

The likelihood that Moorman will experience such a feeling again is unfortunately strong, said Deacon Steve. He noted that the Catholic inmate he has been ministering to “has no misconceptions about being pardoned—it’s not impossible, but it’s unlikely.

“But he has the sure hope that his sins have been forgiven, and the sure hope that the prayers of the people who care about and remember him will help as his earthly journey comes to an end.”

Prayers such as those offered during the vigil at Sacred Heart Church by the laity, religious and ordained members present, including Archbishop Thompson.

“I feel the archbishop’s love and solidarity with us as our shepherd, and I’m very moved that he made praying with us a priority and came all the way here,” said Rahman. “I am very grateful for him coming to be with us, to pray with us as a community where this unnecessary taking of human life will happen.” †

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