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There Must be Mercy


The last thing Elmo Patrick Sonnier said before he died was “I love you.”
 
The last words he heard were the answer: “I love you, too.”
 
He was talking to Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, his spiritual advisor, who had walked with him to the death chamber at a Louisiana prison.
 
Patrick Sonnier, as Sister Helen called him, was sentenced to death by electrocution, and his brother was sentenced to life in prison for the same terrible crime.
 
Sister Helen met Patrick through a program in which she and other members of her order write to inmates who may have little or no other contact with the outside world.
 
Through that correspondence, she befriended Patrick and campaigned unsuccessfully to have his death sentence commuted.
 
She and her sisters also arranged for him to have a Catholic funeral and burial.
 
Her relationship to Patrick was the basis for the book, “Dead Man Walking,” and for the film by the same name.
 
After the funeral, a reporter who had heard that last exchange approached Sister Helen and asked her, “Were you in love with Elmo Sonnier?”
 
“I loved him,” she said, “as a sister loves a brother.”
 
Sister Helen was practicing what Jesus invited all of us to do.
 
This wasn’t easy for some people to understand, because Patrick and his brother Ed had committed violent crimes before, and nothing they did could be undone by the remorse Patrick experienced when he knew he was going to die.
 
But Sister Helen was doing just what Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples, and us: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another.”
 
Christians have heard that so often that it may begin to sound like the message in a Hallmark card, but Jesus didn’t mean it that way.
 
Notice what he said: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”
 
How has he loved us?
 
He has not loved us in a way to suggest that he approves of the times when we have freely and knowingly offended God.
 
But he has loved us in a way to suggest that he is concerned first about our wellbeing, and that he has infinite patience with us — no matter what outrageous things we may say or do — as long as there is a glimmer of hope that we can change our hearts.
 
He has loved us in a way that went to this extreme: He forgave those who killed him while they were in the act of doing it.
 
So when Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another,” he was reaching far beyond the love of romantic novels and Valentine’s Day.
 
Jesus also said, “I have not come to condemn the world but to save the world.”
 
That’s the kind of love he calls us to and it challenges us to understand “love” in a way that we’re not accustomed to.
 
It may seem more logical to ask how it is possible to love a person like Patrick Sonnier.
 
But to love someone in the sense that Jesus used the word doesn’t necessarily mean to approve of someone.
 
It means leaving the moral judgment to God and making ourselves available, whether through prayer or some more tangible means, to seek the conversion rather than the condemnation of a broken human being.
 
This is something to think about when we hear stories about folks like Jodi Arias, who was convicted in Arizona of the brutal murder of her boyfriend, and Ariel Castro, who is accused of kidnapping, imprisoning, and brutalizing three women in Cleveland.
 
If your experience has been like mine, you have heard or read lurid comments about how these two should be punished, about what penalty would be harsh enough to satisfy our disgust and anger over their crimes.
 
Such circumstances provide a stark challenge to our Christian faith, which teaches us to love not only our friends but also our enemies.
 
The celebrant at Patrick Sonnier’s funeral mass was Bishop Stanley Ott of Baton Rouge.
 
The bishop took some heat from people who thought that Sonnier didn’t deserve that level of dignity.
 
Bishop Ott answered the criticism by saying, “In the end, there must be mercy.”
 
Mercy flows from love.
 
What would Jesus say?
 
We already know:
“As I have loved you, so must you love one another.”
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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