Sr. Helen Prejean discusses wrongful convictions, death penalty

On Friday, Sr. Helen Prejean participated in a fireside chat hosted by the Notre Dame Law School Exoneration Justice Clinic and the Klau Institute for Civil and Human Rights. The fireside chat was moderated by dean and professor of law G. Marcus Cole in the Eck Visitors’ Center. 

Prejean said she believes that all humans, even those who have committed terrible crimes, have an inviolable dignity. She also discussed justice for people who were wrongfully convicted, the presence of racism and socioeconomic disparities within our criminal justice system and how Catholics are called to be activists for the most ostracized in society: convicts.

“Where is the dignity in taking a human being, rendering [him] completely defenseless and deliberately killing him when we have other means to keep society safe?” Prejean asked. 

Prejean has been recognized as one of the nation’s leading anti-death penalty advocates. She is a recipient of the Laetare Medal, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a Catholic. 

Prejean rose to prominence for her 1993 book “Dead Man Walking,” in which she told the story of accompanying Patrick Sonnier to his execution on death row. Her book was later turned into a 1996 Academy Award-winning film. 

In recent years, Prejean has accompanied Manuel Ortiz, a resident at a Louisiana prison who has been on death row for over 25 years. 

“I came alive by going to death row,” Prejean said.

She encourages all young people to choose “soul-sized work” that truly stimulates them and fills them with energy. She said she has found her true calling in befriending those on death row, a task which she said “keeps her soul awake.” 

When asked how she remains joyful and good-natured despite encountering those nearing death, Prejean said that being in the presence of those who society has turned its back on can be extremely taxing. But, she said the horror of the situation and these inmates’ impending execution dates left her with one of two options.

“I could either be paralyzed with grief and fear or galvanized to work harder,” she said.

Prejean noted she chose the latter.

She has published two books, met with the Pope and has spoken out against the death penalty in communities across the globe.

Her work with death-row inmates is also an acknowledgment of her own privilege, both in her whiteness and in her socioeconomic status.

She presented data on racial disparities within prisons and the fact that eight in every 10 people placed on death row were put there for committing a crime against a white person.

“For those of us who have white privilege, we’ve got a special responsibility with God to help those who don’t,” Prejean said.

But perhaps the most gratifying part of Prejean’s work and the reason why her soul feels so “alive” in counseling death row inmates, is that she has found true connections with the men she has accompanied. She said they have taught her, most notably, to be both “courageous” and “repentant.” 

“I haven’t met with anyone guilty who isn’t sorry,” Prejean said.

In her current accompaniment with Ortiz, she hopes to help prove his innocence. 

“After being in the presence of Manuel, I leave more of a human being than when I first arrived,” Prejean said.

She hopes to emphasize the humanity of all those that she has accompanied, innocent or not.

Prejean called all of us to be more empathetic, both to the families of the victims and to those who the state will strip of their lives. 

“Is he innocent? No,” Prejean said of a hypothetical death-row inmate. “Is he human? Yes.”

To Prejean, Catholicism and activism go hand in hand. Because theology is so often linked and used to support the death penalty, she said the first step to abolishing it is to begin dialogue. 

Prejean said Jesus always chooses life, and as Catholics, we must, as well. She noted that the one chance Jesus had to condone the death penalty was the woman at the well. He instead chose life and encouraged the woman to reflect on her own life.

To Prejean, the death penalty isn’t a political issue.

“Are you liberal or conservative? Are you this or that? It’s not the point,” she said. “Stick with the issues, and explore them together. Listen to each other.” 

Through education and empathy, Prejean is hopeful that both the Catholic church and the legal system are moving in the right direction, one in which life is preserved, innocent or not. As humans, Prejean said everyone has an indisputable dignity that should never be stripped away. 

Contact Gracie Eppler at


Provost John McGreevy discusses role, book on history of Catholicism

John T. McGreevy began his work as the sixth provost for the University of Notre Dame at the beginning of July.

McGreevy, a history professor who has served on the faculty since 1997 and previously served as chair of the history department and the dean of College of Arts and Letters, was announced as the Charles and Jill Fischer provost in April, four months after Marie Lynn Miranda stepped down from the position. Miranda’s year and a half as provost was largely defined by the University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Identified by a search committee of faculty, students and university president Fr. John Jenkins, McGreevy is cognizant of the fact that many do not understand the job he’s been appointed to.

“No one knows what the provost does,” McGreevy said. “The formal title is chief academic officer… and you’re supposed to guide the academic core; everything from hiring to how do we elevate the reputation of our departments? How do we do cross-college programs? How do we do better with undergraduate education? How do we develop stronger graduate and professional school programs, all that in a general way falls to the provost.”

Notre Dame established the provost position in 1970 under Fr. Hesburgh’s leadership, and the provost is tasked with the overall operation of the academic enterprise, including the faculty, colleges, schools, institutes, centers, libraries and student advising.

McGreevy said that his position allows him to direct Notre Dame’s academic work across programs and colleges, from a twenty-thousand-foot level.

“I won’t get involved in individual ‘we should offer this course this semester’ kind of decisions,” he said. Rather, his role has a larger role in faculty promotion and tenure, developing and strengthening programs and institutionally promoting Notre Dame’s commitment to “really excellent teaching.”

McGreevy said that he is still developing his priorities as provost but he is guided by two overarching goals.

First is a common plan for the academic core, forged from various plans for each of the programs and schools under Notre Dame’s umbrella. He said the goal is to “make Notre Dame better in terms of teaching and learning, in terms of its research programs, all those things.”

Second, McGreevy said he is focused on building strong teams among the leaders that report to him. 

“We have a really great group of deans, great group of provosts, and just to get them really working together and helping me, because I need the help. I can’t do it on my own. And there’s so much wisdom in those rooms,” he said.

McGreevy says that challenges he’s identified moving forward include that the University is “a little bit behind on strategic plans.”

More broadly, McGreevy sees a larger tension at the core of Notre Dame’s path forward, a vision that he says is shared by Fr. Jenkins, and has served as the administration’s project since the 1960s.

“The big challenge for Notre Dame is can it be seriously Catholic and be great,” McGreevy said. “Can we be one of the best private research universities in the world with just absolutely terrific programs at all levels? And can we be distinctly and seriously Catholic? And that’s the big picture mission.”

He says that question comes to the forefront when establishing Notre Dame’s credibility in research, as well as deciding which programs to invest in.

“So we started, a few years ago, a master’s in sacred music and then a doctorate in sacred music, and we’re really good at that. And that’s an example of a program that aligns with our mission, but we become really good at,” he said. “We need more things that everyone unequivocally says ‘okay, yeah, that’s a great program.’”

McGreevy also published a book this month — “Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis” is a 528-page volume out with W.W. Norton. A review in The New York Times says that McGreevy has done “a remarkable job of explaining how the epic struggle between reformists and traditionalists has led us to the present moment in the Roman Catholic Church.”

McGreevy has long studied Catholicism and has published three previous books on various elements of the church’s history. This book drew less from primary research, and was written primarily during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s really based on trying to distill the secondary literature into a readable format and tell the big picture story. So not much research, but a lot of time spent on the 10th and 11th and 12th floor of the library sitting there looking at things and with my laptop writing,” he said.

McGreevy says the book is an attempt to explore the global dimensions of the church, “recognizing that Catholicism is the most multicultural and multilingual institution in the world. And we need histories that reflect that diversity.”

Since the near-death experience of the French Revolution, the church has evolved and changed in many ways over the past 230 years, according to McGreevy.

“We tend to think especially the church is sort of unchanging. And one thing I want to convey in the book is that a lot of things did change, not everything,” McGreevy said. 

Beginning with the French Revolution, McGreevy explained that the event was transformative for the institution.

“What I really want to convey to people is how devastating the French Revolution was for an older, more aristocratic Catholic model, where the nation state and the church were very tightly allied,” he said. “That didn’t go away. But what came in the 19th century was a much more populist, devotional Catholicism, maybe even more a church of the poor. And a church very tightly tied to the papacy.”

The dramatic shift of the French Revolution is followed in history by another dramatic shift, Vatican II, McGreevy said.

“That form of the church, I argue, really lasts until the 1960s in the Second Vatican Council and we’re still trying to sort out what era we’re in now,” he said. “[Pope] Francis says that we’re in a change of era, not an era of change. It seems throughout politics, culture, religion, that some things are fundamentally changing right now. And I hope the book provides a savvy history so Catholics and non-Catholics can better understand how we got to where we are.” 

As a historian focused on Catholicism for much of his career, McGreevy says that work shapes his approach as provost. 

“There’s a parallel that I think about a lot, that if we’re going to be a Catholic university, we are going to become more diverse at Notre Dame. That means diverse in American categories… but also diverse in international students too. And that will be the only way we sustain ourselves as a Catholic university,” he said.

He added that the day-to-day work of a history professor has also prepared him well. 

“Being a historian is good training, you read a lot, and you read a lot as provost. And you do think about change over time and how institutions change. And I find myself thinking about that all the time: how Notre Dame should change,” McGreevy said.


A deep hunger

I hopped on the Manhattan-bound “L” train at 10 a.m., late for work. I overslept and took my sweet time getting up. That’s what summer internships are for messing up, right? The car was lightly filled. Most of the people had already made it to their resting places for the day.

The subways are a unique way to be in a forced community with one another from very different walks of life. Our lives collide in extraordinary and soulful ways as we attempt to get to work, friends and our daily chores. Sometimes that means having a woman yell at you about God or having a stranger’s armpit right in your face.

On this particular ride, I collided with Natasha. A young woman who couldn’t be much older than I, in her early 20s, just beginning her journey with life. With a bandana wrapped around her head, dark brown hair outlining her face and giant reusable bags in her hands.

My face was stuck deep within my book. I didn’t even notice her when she sat next to me.

My grandma and grandpa live in a small cul-de-sac on county road 18 in the middle of nowhere California. They’ve lived there in the same house for 50 years, blossoming into a sprawling family full of love. Every Christmas Eve-eve making tamales with my grandma’s sisters and then having another giant feast on Christmas Eve.

Christmas is always a multigenerational, multi-family extravaganza.

My dad describes how every Christmas he can be found sitting next to his “ex-step mother in law’s ex-husband’s stepson’s wife” and how she is the most wonderful woman you could ever meet on the planet. Love palpably oozes out of every crack, corner and crevice. 

We’ve had just about everything happen within our family that might be considered anti-catholic by some of today’s loudest Catholic voices: divorce, suicide, gay marriage, babies out of wedlock, alcoholism, drug use, immigration from Mexico, prison sentences—you name it, it’s probably happened in our family. 

Life in our family can sometimes be really messy, with that many people and big personalities there are always squabbles, somebody is mad at somebody else or someone has too much to drink. 

However, given all this, I’ve never experienced more love and grace than when I’m around those five tables pushed together to make room for everyone.

Natasha looked over my shoulder and asked me what book I was reading. I was re-reading my favorite book from middle school, “The Secret Life of Bees,” by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s about a young girl in the South that finds community with her former housekeeper and three black honey farmers in the middle of South Carolina. It touches on community, race, faith and loss in really beautiful ways.

This gradually led into a conversation about our own communities, what we were doing on this Manhattan-bound train and who we were. Natasha and her family moved to New York when she was about five and she’s lived there ever since. 

She, like I, has experienced death and addiction in our families. Both of us lost two parents before we got to high school and both of us were raised Catholic. We found ourselves within and of each other in ways we would never have expected.

A lot of times when I go out to a party I have so much fun, but end up feeling unsatisfied. Or, when I repeat my majors introduction for the eight billionth time in a day. It’s similar to when I go to the dining hall and eat a burger or two. It provides me with filling, but not satisfaction. 

Talking with Natasha provided something new: connection with other people in a really substantive way. New York is enormous and often times felt overwhelming in the number of people around with connections sometimes fleeting or nonexistent. 

Social intimacy and commitment are often a lot harder to come by and less prevalent than most of us think it is in our lives. We have fewer close friends than ever before. Reported loneliness at record high levels. Deaths of despair are higher than ever in our history.

Earlier this week, I picked up Mitch Albom’s “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” A book where Eddie, a grizzled war veteran who dies a terrible death, meets five people who illuminate the unseen connections of his life. Albom’s premise is his version of heaven is a wish to have “people who felt unimportant here on earth- realize, finally, how much they are loved.”

In the book, Eddie meets someone who’s life he didn’t even know he had impacted so deeply and is told, “strangers are just family you have yet to come to know.”

I’ve never felt more holy or more Catholic than being around the table with the communion of saints on earth. Filling my soul with the deeper hunger that I have, that we all have. 

This table can be different for each of us, for some it might literally be saint-like figures in our lives, for some it might be playing a video game in a quad with dear friends or around a charcuterie board talking about our deepest worries. 

For me, it’s when I’m around those five tables pushed together to fit everyone in. I think about Natasha joining us at that table. A task that might even require pulling up a sixth table. So that my cousin one day might say, “I was sitting next to my step mom’s, step dad’s, grandson’s friend from a subway.” 

In my opinion, filling this deeper hunger requires two things, (1) being more intentional about the ways we connect with others and (2) being more open to the unknown gifts of others. 

Natasha and I accomplished something on the short subway ride this summer. We filled a deeper hunger. Something that can’t always be accomplished with an all-you-can-eat buffet or a 300-person party.

Dane Sherman is a junior at Notre Dame studying American Studies, Peace Studies, Philosophy and Gender Studies. Dane enjoys good company, good books, good food, and talking about faith in public life. Outside of The Observer, Dane can be found exploring Erasmus books with friends, researching philosophy, with folks from Prism, reading NYTs op-eds from David Brooks/Ezra Klein/Michelle Goldberg or at the Purple Porch getting some food. Dane ALWAYS want to chat and can be reach at @danesherm on twitter or

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.