Gordon Self

June 24, 2013

At a conference last year I tried to take to heart plenary speaker Sister Helen Prejean's words of challenge. I say, "try" as I wondered if I would have the same spirit of compassion and forgiveness under the same circumstances she witnessed.

Prejean is, of course, the central character in the 1995 movie, Dead Man Walking, based on her book of the same title. She related her experience in befriending a convicted murderer on death row and later serving as his spiritual advisor until his execution at which she was present.

She reminded us that two others were crucified on either side of Jesus, and that like Christ, we have to reach out to both – one hand to reach out to the victims of injustice and violence, the other hand to those who perpetuate violence. It is an exceedingly unpopular stance to take.

Her words came back to me recently as I try to make sense of something closer to home. Imagine the following: A child is killed by an alleged drunk driver not far from where you live, where you have been many times before, maybe with your own kids or grandchildren.

Sr. Helen Prejean, speaks before a gathering of exonerated death-row inmates.


Sr. Helen Prejean, speaks before a gathering of exonerated death-row inmates.

The community is shocked and outraged. Local stores sponsor fundraising efforts to support the bereaved family. As you pull into your favourite coffee shop one morning you see a sign reminding you to slow down for the sake of our kids.

You go into the store to get your coffee and there is a poster with the child's face, calling for justice. You donate money for the family.

But what makes the sign all the more personal and incongruous is that minutes before, you drove down the street on which lives the person charged in the child's death.


At least twice a day you are reminded of another side of this tragic story, a story invoking mixed emotions.

You think of Sister Helen Prejean and push her words away. It is difficult to reach out like Jesus to those both on your right and on your left.

In my 30 years working in Catholic health care, I have witnessed many hauntingly difficult tragedies, some due to the direct result or inadvertent actions of others.

I have never forgotten, for example, the Saturday evening in which a young family was killed in a motor vehicle accident. While providing support to the distraught family members who came to identify the bodies, others involved in the same accident received treatment in our stretcher bay, obviously overcome by shock themselves.

So much of my attention was focused on accompanying the family to view the deceased, but I knew the other family needed support, too. I trusted someone else would look after them, but on that Saturday evening, it could not be me. I could only see, respond and allow my heart to be moved by the people on my right.

There was a part of me that judged those on my left.

Tragedies have a way of triggering memories of past events, perhaps experiences that never quite heal. But they can also remind us of our capacity and moral obligation to reach out to all, recognizing every person deserves compassion.

Such lessons underscore the words of another great teacher of our age - the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin who insisted we demonstrate a consistent ethic of life. An ethic requiring us to show equal concern for those harmed by the injustices of life as do the very people Sister Helen will not allow us to forget. An ethic calling us to encourage people to take responsibility for their actions rather than to simply blame and condemn them.

This is not a popular message, nor are the mixed emotions easily reconciled just by wishing them so. I question those who dismiss ethics as a mere academic exercise with no connection to real life.


I cannot think of a more profound way to engage the realities of life than being consistent in our moral choices, especially when our values call us to speak up, perhaps even at risk of offending others, in support of those equally deserving of God's mercy and compassion.

As Sister Helen prays, this requires grace: "God of Compassion, you let your rain fall on the just and the unjust. Expand and deepen our hearts so that we may love as you love, even those among us who have caused the greatest pain by taking life."

(Gordon Self is vice president, mission, ethics and spirituality for Covenant Health and can be reached at