These condemned criminals accepted ‘inadmissible’ death penalty and became saints
August 11, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — In the bestselling interview of Bishop Athanasius Schneider conducted by Diane Montagna, Christus Vincit: Christ’s Triumph over the Darkness of the Age (Angelico Press, 2019), His Excellency says the following about ruling out the death penalty absolutely:
Those who deny the death penalty in principle implicitly or explicitly absolutize the corporal and temporal life of man. They also deny to some extent the consequences of original sin. Those who deny the legitimacy of the death penalty also implicitly or explicitly deny the need and value of expiation and penance for sins, and especially for monstrous crimes still in this earthly life. The “good thief” who was crucified next to Our Lord is one of the most eloquent witnesses to the expiatory value of the death penalty, since through the acceptance of his own death sentence he gained eternal life and became in some sense the first canonized saint of the Church. Indeed, Our Lord said to him, “Today you will be with Me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). (p. 188)
Bishop Schneider draws our attention to a most important aspect of the discussion — an aspect, note well, that progressive or liberal opponents of capital punishment consistently ignore: its expiatory value in making reparation for sin. The neglect of this truth is perfectly consistent with the neglect of many other divinely revealed and constantly taught truths of Catholicism, such as the fact that all of our earthly sufferings are the result of sin, original and personal, and that God, as providential Lord, wills physical evils for our just punishment and especially for our conversion and purification.
His Excellency reminds us of this crucial dimension when he continues:
There are plenty of moving examples of executed evildoers and criminals who, through the acceptance of the death penalty, saved the life of their soul for all eternity. St. Joseph Cafasso is the patron of men condemned to death; his biography provides us with astonishing examples of conversions of such men. All of these examples bore witness to the truth that the short temporal life of the body is disproportionate to eternal life in heaven. (Ibid.)
Ms. Montagna asks if the bishop thinks more criminals would convert if they were allowed to live out long prison sentences rather than being put to death. His response is striking:
We have the example of a “good thief” of the twentieth century in the case of Claude Newman, a murderer who in 1943 was put on death row in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Initially an unbeliever and non-Catholic, he experienced a conversion to the Catholic faith through the power of the Miraculous Medal. He died a holy death as a devout Catholic. He bore witness to the legitimacy and to the expiatory value of the death penalty.
One can mention also the case of the Servant of God Jacques Fesch (1930–1957), a murderer who spent more than three years in solitary confinement. He experienced a profound conversion before his execution by guillotine in Paris. He left spiritually edifying notes and letters. Two months before his execution, he wrote: “Here is where the Cross and its mystery of suffering make their appearance. The whole of life has this piece of wood as its center[.] ... Don’t you think that, whatever you set out to do in the short time that is yours on earth, everything worthwhile is marked with this seal of suffering? There are no more illusions: you know with certainty that all this world has to offer is as false and deceptive as the most fantastic dreams of a six-year-old girl. Then despair invades you, and you try to avoid the suffering that dogs your heels and licks at you with its flames, but every means of doing so is only a rejection of the Cross. We can have no genuine hope of peace and salvation apart from Christ crucified! Happy the man who understands this.” On October 1, 1957, at 5:30 am, he climbs to the scaffold. “May my blood that is going to flow be accepted by God as a whole sacrifice, that every drop,” he writes, “serves to erase a mortal sin.” In his last journal entry, he wrote, “In five hours, I shall look upon Jesus!” (p. 189)
It is true that not every criminal will admit his sins and seek repentance and forgiveness from God; but it is no less true that, as Dr. Samuel Johnson famously quipped, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” There is something more humane about confronting a murderer with the gravity of his crimes: “You have unjustly taken these lives, and now your life is justly required of you. You have two weeks in which to repent and prepare yourself to meet the divine Judge, of whom the earthly judge is only a faint echo.” With a ten-, twenty-, or thirty-year prison sentence, many temptations and evils are spread out in a seemingly endless stretch in front of prisoners, who can end up morally worse, or at any rate not morally better, than when they entered. Is this more humane? Only if the worst evil is physical death — which it certainly is not.
In Christus Vincit, Bishop Schneider proceeds to remind us of an episode in the life of the Little Flower:
We also know from the life of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus that, as a young girl, she adopted her “first sinner,” the murderer Pranzini, who in 1887 was sentenced to death. The saint writes in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul: “The day after his execution I hastily opened the paper and what did I see? Tears betrayed my emotion; I was obliged to run out of the room. Pranzini had mounted the scaffold without confessing or receiving absolution, and ... turned around, seized the crucifix which the priest was offering to him, and kissed Our Lord’s Sacred Wounds three times. I had obtained the sign I asked for, and to me it was especially sweet. Was it not when I saw the Precious Blood flowing from the Wounds of Jesus that the thirst for souls first took possession of me? (p. 189–90)
Pranzini was a hardened criminal who had no interest in the “consolations of religion,” but thanks to the prayers of a nun and the ministrations of a faithful priest who did not leave his side, he welcomed God’s grace at the last moment and died having repented of his evil. Even as it can be a false mercy to want to keep someone alive who sinned against the very foundations of social life, it can be a true mercy to give a criminal a radical choice between repentance and hardness, so that the seriousness of what he has done and the need to set his conscience in a right condition before death will be apparent.
The examples narrated by Bishop Athanasius Schneider also show us in the most vivid way how important prison ministry is, which offers to convicts again and again the opportunity to be reconciled to God, against whom every sin is directed (cf. Ps 50:6); it shows us that the prayer of the righteous man availeth much (cf. Jas 5:16).