The Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education (GRE) honored those who have contributed to the mission of the school and the renewal of the church at its Fifth Annual Sapienta et Doctrina celebration on Oct. 29.
“This is the church at its very best,” said Rev. Anthony Ciorra, dean of GRE. “You bring us hope.”
Father Ciorra said the evening’s energy reminded him of friends and faculty of GRE that have passed on, such as Peter F. Ellis, S.S.L.; John Nelson, Ph.D.; Joseph Novak, S.J., brother of Vincent Novak, S.J., founding dean of GRE; and George McCauley, S.J.
“I believe in some way their spirits are with us this evening as we continue their work,” he said. “I’m not sure you recognize how extraordinary you are. Each and every one of you are treasures.”
Twelve individuals and one institution were honored at the event for their day-to-day work of the church. The event was held at the Rose Hill campus in the Bronx.
A special Gaudium et Spes award was bestowed on Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., a leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty and author of the best-seller and Pulitzer Prize-nominee, Dead Man Walking (Vintage, 1993) and The Death of Innocents (2003).
“I can never receive an award for myself,” Sister Prejean said. “I’m glad it’s made of glass because you look through me into the stories where I’m going to bring you now.”
Sister Prejean began her prison ministry in 1981 when she dedicated her life to the poor of New Orleans. While living in the St. Thomas housing project, she became pen pals with Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers, sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison.
Upon Sonnier’s request, Sister Prejean repeatedly visited him as his spiritual advisor. In doing so, her eyes were opened to the Louisiana execution process.
“The places I’ve been brought into are the kind of places where from the time you wake up in your cell in the morning until you drop off in sleep at night, you receive a thousand signals in the course of the day that you are nothing but disposable human waste,” she said. “We do that in our society directly and indirectly, but with people on death row, we do it in a very direct way. We say to them that what you have done put you beyond the pale of humanness and we must destroy you in order for us to continue as a society.”
Prejean said she did not know she would be brought to death row.
“At first it was a struggle for me because I was doing retreats and religious education and at first I really didn’t get it about justice,” she said. “I knew about charity but embracing justice meant taking on the economic and political systems. It meant taking on the Constitution of the United States, the way the law works, the criminal justice system. But the Holy Spirit nudged me loose.”
The symbol that Catholics wear around their necks—the cross—is a symbol of execution, Prejean said.
“But the cross and message of Jesus is not the message of the United States of America, where in our culture of violence we basically say that there are some among us who are our enemies to such an extent that the only way we can be safe is if we kill them … and so it is no surprise that 70 percent of our budget goes into the military, trying to find a violent solution to solve social problems,” Prejean said. “The way of Jesus is love, persuasion, justice and community and that’s the only answer.”
Prejean said she entered into her journey on both arms on the cross. On one hand was the perpetrator, who has done an unspeakable crime, and on the other is the victim’s family who is suffering.
“Culture says you have to choose. You can’t be on both sides,” she said. “And in the film of Dead Man Walking, you have the victim’s family is saying to me, ‘Sister it’s us or him. You can’t be on both sides.’ And the gospel of Jesus embraces both. And of course what holds it all together is the dignity of all human life, not just the innocent but also the guilty.”
Sister Prejean went on to see the “humanness” in Sonnier and with the help of Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of one of the victims, found the true meaning of forgiveness.
“He was the gracious one. He was the one to invite me to come and pray with him in this little chapel in Saint Martinsville. And as I was kneeling alongside this man, I realized as he prayed, that he was praying for everyone and that his heart had already received the grace because he prayed for Mrs. Sonnier, the mother of Patrick and Eddie Sonnier, who had killed his son.”
“He’s the hero of Dead Man Walking. I’m just the storyteller. He’s the one who took me through the journey of what forgiveness means,” Prejean said.
The theme of the Sapienta celebration was “Setting the Captives” free. One by one the evening’s awardees were honored in the McGinley Ballroom.
The GRE Founder’s Award went to Cathy Canavan, Marie Gough, Marilyn Martin and RuthAnne Rubin, who in various positions at GRE, have given more than 40 years of service to the school.
The Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, S.J., Award for Service to the Hispanic Community was given to Juan Lulio Blanchard, the director of the Office of Hispanic Affairs of the Archdiocese of New York.
Sapientia et Doctrina Awards went to:
• Paul Carty, the principal of Archbishop Stepinac High School,
• David Cervini, who leads the Contemporary Roman Catholic young adults group at Holy Trinity Church on the Upper West Side,
• Sister Pauline Chirchirillo, P.B.V.M., who has worked with the Little Flower Children’s Services in Brooklyn,
• Gaynell Cronin, an author and the director of religious education and pastoral associate in Croton-on-Hudson,
• Joseph Currie, S.J., who served with distinction as director of campus ministry at Fordham for 13 years,
• Thomas E. Legere, Ph.D., a psychologist who has been honored in the past for his work with the military in helping them to address the problem of addiction,
• Monsignor Michael Motta, an advocate of lifelong Catholic faith formation in the Archdiocese of Hartford and throughout New England,
• Maureen Sullivan, O.P., a member of the theology faculty at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., and,
• The Church of the Presentation of Upper Saddle River, N.J., whose soup kitchen has been running strong for 26 years and whose ministry serves over 1,000 persons per month.