Renowned death penalty abolitionist speaks to students

Sr. Helen Prejean, the death penalty abolitionist portrayed in the 1995 film Dead Man Walking, visited Notre Dame on March 25 and 26. She was hosted by theology professor William Mattison for the second year in a row, to deliver a lecture to the Moreau First Year Experience program and to visit his class on Faith and Human Flourishing, following a showing of the film that depicted Sr. Prejean’s work. 

The movie is based on Sr. Prejean’s first experience of ministering to a convict on death row. She began her decades-long service to death row inmates and activism for the abolition of the death penalty. Mattison shows the film as part of a lesson on charity, offering Sr. Prejean’s Christlike accompaniment as, according to Mattison, “an example of Christian love and forgiveness.”

Sr. Prejean spoke at length about her experiences which inspired the film. She offered the movie’s final scenes as a condensed way to view the death penalty issue. The scene bounces between depicting the heinous crime and later execution of the movie’s subject, Matthew Poncelet. The overlapping scenes, she noted, acknowledge both the horrific crimes perpetrated by many inmates while at the same time inviting viewers to consider that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Through this scene, Sr. Prejean explained, the audience is able to see the human dignity of even the worst of criminals. In the movie and throughout the talk, she stressed the importance of seeing the dignity of all people and attending to the needs of both convicts and victims. She also emphasized the need to work to overcome the bitterness and hatred one harbors toward criminals so as to see their divine filiation and that of all human beings. Furthermore, she claimed that while the Catholic Church often advocates for innocent life, it does not do enough to uphold the dignity of the lives of the guilty.

Moreover, Sr. Prejean described the impact that her ministry had on her own spiritual journey. She shared how her unconditional love opened the hearts of the worst of criminals, allowing them to repent and seek God’s mercy before they died. Sr. Prejean added that her ministry has helped her to see the dignity of all people, regardless of the choices they make. “I’m a lot clearer on what God is about than I was before,” Sr. Prejean remarked.

Additionally, the Moreau First Year Experience hosted a conversation with Sr. Prejean titled “Pursuing a Life Well Lived.” This event, also moderated by Mattison, focused on living out one’s personal mission, which is the overarching theme of the second semester Moreau course.

This discussion emphasized the importance of discerning God’s call, particularly in responding to injustice. Mattison’s main takeaway from this talk was that “when you feel energized in the spirit, it’s a good sign that you’re responding to God’s call.”

Sr. Prejean urged all present to be responsive to the Holy Spirit’s call to stand up for justice and the dignity of all human beings.“It’s a real emotional, spiritual journey on this issue,” Sr. Prejean shared with the Rover

Students’ reactions to both events were overwhelmingly positive. 

A Junior who attended remarked, “Watching Dead Man Walking and then immediately getting to interact with the main character in person was a very special experience. Her perspective, that people should ‘lead with love,’ spurred important reflection and conversation among the class.”

“It was definitely very inspiring to see Sr. Helen’s talk,” freshman Kali Stalboerger commented. “Her work is clearly influenced by her faith in God and in the dignity of each human person. I was definitely proud to be at a university that would be willing to host a speaker who stands up to the government and to the view of the public as a whole in order to help those imprisoned, those society has forgotten about,” she added.

At the conclusion of each event, attendees flocked to Sr. Prejean to introduce themselves, speak to her, and get their free Dead Man Walking books autographed.

Sr. Prejean’s talks encouraged all present to reflect on the dignity of the human person and how that informs their stance on social issues. “I hope that [the attendees] would reflect, based on Sr. Helen’s experience, what goods are served by our society’s commitment to the death penalty,” noted Professor Mattison. He concluded, “In reality, the death penalty does not serve victim’s families or our society.”

Daniel Rueda-Ramirez is a freshman from Baumer Hall, majoring in Business Analytics and theology. When he is not studying or singing with the Liturgical Choir, he can probably be found playing foosball in the CoMo lounge. You can email him at

Photo Credit: Notre Dame Law School

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