Sister Helen Prejean On Witnessing Executions: 'I Couldn't Let Them Die Alone'

Aug 12, 2019
Originally published on August 16, 2019 9:16 am

Sister Helen Prejean is best known for her 1993 memoir, Dead Man Walking, about her role as a spiritual adviser to a convicted killer on death row. The story was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Prejean has accompanied six prisoners to their executions and has been at the forefront of activism against the death penalty.

"In [their] last moments, I was amazed that they're walking," she says. "'Sister, pray that God holds my legs up as I walk.' They take steps. I read scripture to them. ... All I knew was: I couldn't let them die alone."

Her new memoir, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, tells the story of her life leading up to her awakening to social justice movements in the 1980s. She entered the convent in 1957, joining the Congregation of St. Joseph in Baton Rouge, La. She remembers a strict regimen guided by canonical law, where questioning of superiors was forbidden.

"It was called 'blind obedience,' and by being obedient, that was how you got holy," Prejean says. "You gave up self-will, and in the process, as I experienced it, you also began to give up a lot of thinking — critical thinking — because you knew what you had to do was conform in the end to whatever was being asked of you."

Just a few years later, beginning in 1962, her life was opened up by the reforms of Vatican II — the 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church. Suddenly she and the other nuns were allowed to discuss books, talk to each other freely, and choose their own ministry.

Her book ends with her letter to Pope Francis, in which she shares her concern about the way the church excludes women. "How do you love your Church and raise the questions?" she says. "You do that because you do love your Church! ... You keep the dialogue going!


Interview Highlights

On becoming involved in social justice in her 40s

There were two main things driving that. One was: I was really in a spiritual cocoon. We had young girls coming over to the motherhouse for retreats. I really did think that the way you change the world was: You pray and God takes care of the big problems of the world. And I'd say things like, "I'm apolitical. I'm spiritual. I'm above that." And so this is just one rift — these tensions and dialogues and debates were going on about everything. One of them was ... now that Vatican II is open to the needs and sufferings of the world, what is our mission going to be?

Before, it had always been determined by an institutional structure: You would teach in this school, you will be in this hospital. Now, we as a community of sisters are beginning to determine it for ourselves. So we had sisters going over to Latin America and beginning to be in Nicaragua and El Salvador in those countries, and coming back and [saying], "Do you know what's happening to the people? There are these death squads. There are dictators. There are these people being disappeared and tortured." They were bringing into our meetings the suffering of what was going on in those countries, and then the journey began.

So I came back to New Orleans ... and I would begin to volunteer with the novices taking the bus and going into the inner city, to the St. Thomas housing projects, and beginning to volunteer at a place called Hope House.

On accompanying six men on death row to their executions

Of course I'm on the outside of them, but in a way I'm on the inside of them too, because I've gotten to know them. ... [They] cannot help but anticipate and imagine their death, which is coming. It's predetermined, and they all have the same nightmare: "The guards come in for me. It's my time, and I'm kicking, struggling, 'No, no!' and they're trying to drag me out of my cell, and then I wake up and it's a dream." ... They shared that with me and their inner anguish.

On what she tries to convey to people as they die

All the words have been spoken. In my faithfulness to them and in visiting them, they know my love and care for them, and that I believe in their dignity. It's all presence then. It's just pure presence. Like when you're at the death of anyone, you're not making long speeches ... there's nothing to say. You look at my face. I'll be the face of Christ for you. It's pure presence and that's what it is.

On women in the church being restricted from priesthood and participating in policy changes

Women can't preach in the Catholic Church. Women cannot read the Gospel at Mass. A young little pimply teenager who happens to be a boy could read the Gospel. - Sister Helen Prejean

Women can't preach in the Catholic Church. Women cannot read the Gospel at Mass. A young little pimply teenager who happens to be a boy could read the Gospel. You've got to be male. [There are a] million ways it plays out that women somehow cannot fully image Christ. It was what I said in the letter [to Pope Francis], was that women need to be in on those decision-making councils when policies are being decided in the church, because the presence of women — our consciousness, our empathy, what we bring to the table — is really important for the dialogue. And if men in the church are always only talking to other men at the top decision-making levels, and that's the curia in Rome, that's the bishops when they meet — it's always all males. And ... if we don't have full dialogue with women represented ... we are never going to be able to embody what the gospel of Jesus is about.

On how witnessing death changed her feelings about her own death

In watching people actually go to their death, I've seen how they summoned their courage to make the walk. They're very afraid, but they do it. I've watched Mama, Daddy, [my sister] Mary Ann. ... My sister, she was always brave. When we were doing tomboy things like jumping from a limb to catch a rope swing, I'm the last one on the branch, and she's going, "Jump! Don't be such a sissy!" So the words that came up inside me after she had died — because she was gone then, I couldn't hear her voice physically — was: "Sis, death comes for everybody. I did it. It's going to happen to you too. Don't be a sissy! I had what it took. God brought me through it, and you'll have what you need to and it strengthens me."

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Molly Seavy-Nesper and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Sister Helen Prejean, has written a new spiritual memoir. You may know her as the author of the earlier memoir, "Dead Man Walking," about how she became an activist against the death penalty. In 1982, she became a spiritual adviser to a convicted killer on death row. She's since accompanied six people to their execution. "Dead Man Walking" was adapted into a 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Helen Prejean.

In Sister Helen's new memoir "River Of Fire," she tells the story of her spiritual journey and her awakening to social justice movements. She entered the convent in 1957, joining the Congregation of St. Joseph. Just a few years later, beginning in 1962, her life was opened up by the reforms of Vatican II, the 21st Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church.

It wasn't until the '80s that she started to see her role as being with the poor and imprisoned. Her book ends with her letter to Pope Francis, which she personally delivered to him, in which she shares her concern about the wound she believes infects every aspect of church life - the way the church treats women.

Sister Helen Prejean, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You had not planned to be a social activist nun. You hadn't planned on being an anti-death penalty activist. What did you imagine being a nun would be like when you joined the Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph at age 18?

HELEN PREJEAN: Well, it was what the holy rule said and what convent life was like before Vatican II. You joined the religious life to seek a spiritual life of perfection, of union with God, love of neighbor, which it was semi-cloistered. You never ate with laypeople where you taught at the school. It was a daily regimen of prayers, a lot of vocal prayers, the rosary, litanies. But precious in the day were two half-hour periods of silence where you could have meditation.

And so it was under this strict thing of canon law for all religious women which had come out in 1949, strict thing of the way that you got to holiness was by obedience to superiors. So no questioning. It was called blind obedience. And by being obedient, that was how you got holy. You gave up self-will. And in the process, as I experienced it, you also began to give up a lot of thinking, critical thinking, because you knew what you had to do was conform in the end to whatever was being asked of you. And that is what I entered into. I wanted to be a mystic.

GROSS: So did you feel that blind obedience and a lack of critical thinking were leading you closer to the mystical state that you wanted to be in, that you imagined being a nun would lead you closer to?

PREJEAN: I just want to tell you I tried hard. I really did. But what I began to experience, just existentially inside myself, was I was giving up critical thinking. It was whatever Mother says has got to be what it is. And then you just follow the rule.

GROSS: Mother superior, not your mother.

PREJEAN: Yeah. No, Mother superior is right. In religious life, you call superiors mother. And I began to find that it was kind of a quietism. It was kind of - well, I'm praying, but I wasn't intellectually stirred. And I began to find it very confining. Luckily, I wasn't in it that long, like, just five years, before Vatican II happened in the church and opened up doors of inquiry, exploration and relating to the world.

GROSS: So...

PREJEAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...You're talking about how nuns were treated. Now compare nuns to priests. You write that in the spiritual manuals of the day before Vatican II, that topping the list of womanly virtues was obedience, submission and resignation. So that's what you were supposed to practice. What about people who - like, men who were becoming priests? Was there an emphasis for them on obedience, submission and resignation?

PREJEAN: They had to give obedience to a bishop, but they were much more freewheeling. And they didn't make a vow of poverty, so they had money if their family had money. They could have cars. They could have a boat. They could have a condominium. It was just like they were much more freewheeling. And they would make decisions and act out of them.

But their life was not in community the way ours was as sisters. I found them often very lonely. And, I mean, I even heard that in some rectories, you had your individual salt and pepper shaker by your place. And loneliness is not good for people. I don't think you can make it in the Christian life - I don't think you can make it in human life without a community of people to share with. So that was a downside for them.

They were also trained in the early days - like I talk about my pastor, Paul Raymond Moore, when I was the director of religious ed in a parish in New Orleans, he never ever looked into my eyes. He had been trained never to look into the eyes of a woman. And I also learned that the way priests would shake hands with a woman is they'd take your hand, and then they would, like, bend your hand with the wrist outward, so you couldn't come in close. Less, God forbid, they got a bosomly hug.

GROSS: Let's talk about what you had to wear before Vatican II. What was it like wearing the habit? How did it feel? Did you feel like it was separating you from the world or just giving you a kind of uniform that told the world who you were and that got respect?

PREJEAN: Well, in a Catholic context - and you got to know that during this time, the religious women, religious orders were the ones that made the Catholic institutions run - the whole educational system and hospitals. So in a Catholic context, people were used to the habit. They saw it as a object of respect, and traditional Catholics found it very hard when we took the habit off.

But the habit - because you got to get this, Terry, it was three and a half yards of black wool serge wrapped around your body, everything covered. You not only had long, flowing sleeves, but you had what was called undersleeves. You not only had a long, black flowing veil, but you had a under-veil. And you had what was called a cornette around your neck and three other pieces of cloth on your head, so that you were - let's just say - you were covered.

In fact, one of our sisters one time, she was in this material store cloth. And she was standing there, and she felt somebody pulling on her veil. And she turned around to this surprised lady who thought she was a bolt of material.

PREJEAN: (Laughter).

PREJEAN: Well, in the way she was, how you going to know she's not a bolt of material? With all that black, that's all you saw.

GROSS: And New Orleans is hot and humid.

PREJEAN: Oh, God. You want to - I mean, we had a funny sister, Sister Gert. And she got on the bus one day. One of the ladies on the bus in New Orleans - it's July. And the lady said, oh, look at those sisters. They always look as crisp and fresh as daisies. And Gert leans over and whispers to the sister next to her, kid, what is that rolling down my leg? You sweat. You were in a puddle. It was really, really hot. But you know what? It's interesting how you adapt to things. So you expect it to be hot. You moved into that. And so in the summer, you were hot.

GROSS: Has the burqa ever seemed similar to you...

PREJEAN: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...To the habit?

PREJEAN: You know what? I think of that, Terry. I - when I'm in an airport and I see people in burqas, I go, we were like that. We were covered head to toe, too, with a veil over our heads. I think of it a lot.

GROSS: And what does that say to you both about burqas and about habits?

PREJEAN: Well, that they're very, very similar, and they come out of a religious tradition and the way women, to be modest, were covered. I also see there can be great respect in wearing the burqa because if it's coming from the inner religious motives of devotion, people can dress any kind of way they want.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sister Helen Prejean. And she's written a new spiritual memoir that's called "River Of Fire." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Sister Helen Prejean. She's written a new spiritual memoir called "River Of Fire," and she's best known for her work with people on death row, her work opposing the death penalty. She was dramatized in the film "Dead Man Walking," in which she was portrayed by Susan Sarandon.

You entered the convent when you were in your late teens. This was just a few years before Vatican II, which initiated really groundbreaking reforms in the Catholic Church. And you write that the new insights of Vatican II helped you get your selfhood back after your futile attempts to relinquish it because part of what you were taught as a novitiate was to, as we were talking about, be obedient, be submissive and kind of turn off your critical thinking, which is, in a way, a denial of the actionable self.

PREJEAN: Absolutely.

GROSS: But also, as you point out in the book, you were too young to really know yourself. I mean, like, you didn't really fully know what your self was. So what was it like to be able to assert yourself and remain a nun after Vatican II? And what were some of the ways you were able early on to assert yourself that - in ways that you couldn't before?

PREJEAN: I just want to say you said when I was a novitiate. It's not - the novitiate is the place.

GROSS: Oh.

PREJEAN: I was a novice.

GROSS: Novice. Yes, right. Thank you.

PREJEAN: No, a lot of people do that.

GROSS: Right.

PREJEAN: A lot of people do it. OK, so waking up to self. Well, first of all, you would have to have permission. During the days of blind obedience, mother would have to approve any book you read. So you're doing this reading, and of course, we are free to read. And we are free to talk to each other. Before, we were always in a time of silence. You didn't talk to each other except at recreation.

So we'd meet in these little huddles. Did you look at this book? Did you read this book? And we're sharing the books with each other. It was just a wonderful time of freedom. So first of all, what are you're reading, intellectually how you challenged. The other thing is that you could be a self by having the freedom to write letters and receive mail without mother reading your mail. I mean, when I look back on that, it couldn't have been more restrictive. You'd write a letter. You'd put it on Mother's desk, and she would check it. She would read it.

My sister Mary Ann was really funny. She'd write to me. She knew Mother Normie (ph), our novice mistress, was reading the mail. So she'd be telling me news, and then she'd say hi, Mother Normie. I know you're reading this. I hope you have a good day. So anyway, you can just see to - for intellectual freedom. And then the other thing was being able to choose or growing into what your service would be, what your ministry would be.

GROSS: You mean as opposed to being assigned it?

PREJEAN: Absolutely being assigned it. I mean, by assigned it, I mean we all go into chapel. We're all quiet. Oh, God, help me. I'm about to be assigned. I don't no where. And then you'd hear silence in the chapel and the soft pad of shoes. And then by your pew would be a sister who would hand you a little white slip of paper. Dear Sister Louis Augustine - that was my name in religion then - it is the will of God for you to go to St. Francis Cabrini to teach in middle school. Boom.

Some of our sisters who wanted to be nurses, they would get the little slip of paper. You're assigned to teaching, or if you wanted to teach, and you were a nurse. It was just moving pieces around on a chess board because blind obedience was supposed to cover everything.

GROSS: So Vatican II is a turning point in many ways. And one very profound turning point is that it basically said the church can change.

PREJEAN: Absolutely.

GROSS: Things don't have to remain the same forever. And, you know, it points to reading the signs of the times.

PREJEAN: Right.

GROSS: And do you feel like the church is still open to that, is still open to change?

PREJEAN: Yes, so when you use those words, the church, you're not talking about a monolithic body. And you're not mainly talking about the hierarchy. The church, as Vatican II said, is the people. So you have people's experience bubbling up all over the place. So you have people going to the border right now to be with the asylum seekers and the ones separated from their children. That's speaking. And then what happens is as people awaken and as your heart is moved, as we're moved by compassion by the suffering, then we are moved to action. And that bubbles up. So there are all these little bubbles coming up all over the Catholic Church.

GROSS: Another thing regarding Vatican II, you say at last we got to reclaim our humanness, all of it, including our physical selves, our bodies, our desires, even our sexuality. I was surprised to see sexuality...

PREJEAN: Of course you were.

GROSS: ...In that sentence.

PREJEAN: Of course you were. The only...

GROSS: Coming from a nun, yeah.

PREJEAN: Well, of course sexuality. You know, sexuality is present in us in a lot of ways. It's not just having genital sex with people. Sexuality is part of our being, so the sexuality...

GROSS: But I always thought that's a part of the being you were supposed to suppress if you were a nun.

PREJEAN: Well, acting out of sexuality where you made a vow of celibacy, and here you are having affairs and having sex, that's not integral. That's not transparent. That's not true. But so of course, when - we never talked about sexuality. Everything was sublimate, sublimate, sublimate, which means you just offered to God. But sexuality is our body. It's our self. It's part of who we are. So the challenge of celibacy is - it's not not to love anyone or not to love in friendship. But you know that one of the levees around your river is that you will not go into full sexual expression with someone.

And one of the reasons for that is because it's so self-absorbing. And it closes you off because if you're in a sexual relationship with somebody, in that intimate a relationship, that's priority in your life. And you cannot simultaneously in your life be open to a whole lot of people. That's the challenge of celibacy, but not to live the shriveled-up life where you're not close to anybody.

GROSS: So you met a priest when you were in your 20s, and you were at the time studying together. And he fell in love with you, and I think you fell in love with him. But of course, you wanted to observe the vow of chastity. And you write that this relationship was an example of what was being called the third way. Would you describe what the third way was?

PREJEAN: Sure. And if you remember my description - that we would live our vows, but we would be close as man and woman as friends. And then I say in the book, if you think that sounds tricky and confusing, that's because it is.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PREJEAN: So of course (laughter), when - sister said freedom and priests, and you'd be going away to study, as happened with me when I went to London, Ontario. It was a school of religious education, and you had priests and nuns, a few laypeople going to school together. And that's how I met - William's not his real name. I wanted to protect him. He has died, and I want to make sure that I protected him in every way. That - and he was so attractive. He was handsome. He had a great mind. And we were immediately drawn to each other.

But then we are going over to Dennis' (ph) house, who had a piano. And there was beer and wine and hard liquor. And so we're sipping our drinks, and we're singing songs around the piano. And some of them were love songs like "Somewhere, My Love, There Will Be Songs To Sing" (ph), the theme from "Zhivago" (ph), which had come out around that time. And the next thing you know, you're looking at each other. And you're going, oh, my God. And that attraction was there, the sexual attraction. You couldn't help it.

So then there's that discernment again in prayer. What's going on here? What's going on here? So I was - I knew my soul, and I knew that I was not on a path that I'm going to fall in love with somebody and marry them. I was clear about that. I wanted to be able to live a lifestyle that I could be wide in the number of people or the way I could reach out to people in love and service. That is a gift of the sisterhood, by the way, that you are free after Vatican II to do work you want to do. And you can follow your deepest desires and your gifts as a sell.

GROSS: Well, a problem in the relationship too was that he started drinking a lot, too much. And that - you found that very troubling, and you broke off the relationship. Do you think he wanted to marry you and leave the priesthood and have you leave...

PREJEAN: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...The order?

PREJEAN: No, that was clear. And especially when we're together, and he'd be coming on strong to me. I mean, sometimes - thank God I was physically fit. I mean, when he was drinking, it was not pleasant at all. Then he'd be so apologetic. And I didn't know how alcohol worked. But he was so apologetic. And he'd say - my - he would call me Lou (ph). My name was Louis Augustine. We dropped all the men's names after Vatican II, became our baptismal name ourselves. Oh, Lou, I'm so sorry. You know I want you to be free to be who you want to be.

And then he'd be so contrite that I thought it would never happen again. I didn't know how alcohol worked. I also began to see how terribly lonely he was in the priesthood. It is one of my concerns for priests, that so many of them are lonely because they don't have the same kind of community.

GROSS: So you eventually broke off your relationship with Will because he wanted to get married. You did not. He wanted to have a sexual relationship. You wanted to keep your vow of celibacy. So you broke it off and eventually became friends. I'm wondering if you - when I say eventually became friends, I mean you started your relationship on different terms.

PREJEAN: Absolutely, yeah.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you think it was very helpful to you as a nun to have experienced that relationship with Will because it taught you something about relationships, something...

PREJEAN: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...You could bring into the world and understand the world around you better, the world that you are serving.

PREJEAN: Absolutely. And I'm going to tell you what Will gave me, the relationship, was great confidence in myself as a woman and as being attractive. And I relate to men all over the place now that I'm doing my work. I love the company of men. And Will taught me that.

GROSS: My guest is Sister Helen Prejean. Her new memoir is called "River Of Fire." After we take a break, we'll talk about how she became an activist for social justice. And John Powers will review a new documentary that won prizes at Sundance. It's about a beekeeper in Macedonia. John says it's a specific story, but it makes us feel its universal importance. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Sister Helen Prejean. She's written a new spiritual memoir called "River Of Fire." Her earlier memoir "Dead Man Walking" was about her work with death row inmates and her activism opposing the death penalty. It was adapted into a 1995 film of the same name. Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for her portrayal of Sister Helen. Sister Helen entered the convent in 1957, joining the congregation of St. Joseph.

You describe a rift in your community between the sisters who wanted to emphasize social justice and the sisters who wanted to focus on spiritual issues, and you started off in the spiritual camp. Why were you in the spiritual camp and not the social justice camp, which you eventually crossed over into?

PREJEAN: Yeah, there were two main things driving that. One was I was really, like, in a spiritual cocoon. We had young girls coming over the motherhouse for retreats. I really did think that the way you changed the world is you pray and God takes care of the big problems of the world. And I'd say things like, I'm apolitical, or I'm spiritual; I'm above that.

And so this isn't just one rift; these tensions and dialogues and debates were going on about everything. One of them was, what is - now that Vatican II has opened us to the needs and sufferings of the world, what is our mission going to be? Before, it had always been determined an institutional structure - you will teach in this school, you will be in this hospital.

Now we, as a community of sisters, are beginning to determine it for ourselves. So we had sisters going over to Latin America and beginning to be in Nicaragua and El Salvador and those countries. And coming back and say, do you know what's happening to the people? There are these death squads. There are these dictators. There are these people being disappeared and tortured. They are bringing into our meetings the suffering of what was going on in those countries. And then the journey began.

So I came back to New Orleans. I was still at Joseph House at our novitiate, and I would begin to volunteer with the novices, taking the bus and going into the inner city to the St. Thomas housing projects and beginning to volunteer at a place called Hope House.

GROSS: So after you started doing work in the housing project, that eventually led to your work on death row, with people living on death row.

PREJEAN: Yeah, big surprise.

GROSS: And you've done a lot of work on behalf of opposing executions. Last month Attorney General William Barr announced that the federal government will resume the execution of death row inmates. The last federal execution was in 2003. I imagine this was a pretty discouraging announcement for you.

PREJEAN: But expected. When you have, as the president of the United States, a man who took out full-page ads in New York newspapers presuming that the young black boys and Hispanic boys of the Central Park Five were guilty of attacking this jogger in Central Park, when he presumes their guilt - they've since been exonerated. He's the president. He's appointed William Barr, the attorney general.

And what I've seen with the way the death penalty works in states and the way it works in the federal government, it is up to individual attorney generals or prosecutors whether or not they will prosecute for the death penalty or not. So these are all people that have received the death sentence. So what they want to do is they want to hasten their executions. But the arbitrariness in which the federal system is applied is the same as the state.

And when you look at the people that have been executed in the federal system, you see that every one of them was poor, and many of them were minorities, even more so than in the state system. In the state system, where you see race is in the victim. That's when you kill white people, overwhelmingly. That's when you get the death penalty. But the same arbitrariness and capriciousness, like right now we're really getting clear about, that they are 2% of prosecutors in different counties in this nation - they all have the same ground rules - 2% that are accountable for over 50% of all the people sentenced to death.

Because it's up to individual discretion, with the federal death penalty, you could have the prosecutors in Manhattan that never went for the federal death penalty. But a state like Louisiana, where you have a federal person who's from the state and has the culture of the Deep South, you saw more federal death penalties being sought. So it's no different.

So we were expecting this to come. I've been talking to federal prosecutors. And of course, Trump's administration, in a number of things, seems to think that he gives a fiat and it all begins to happen. But there is an appeals process in place in the federal system. And I've been talking to the lawyers, and they're hoping they can stay this, that these people will not be executed.

GROSS: You've accompanied six people to their execution. You've witnessed those executions. Do you have any sense of what the men whose executions you've witnessed experienced in the last minutes of their lives and experienced as they were being executed? Is there anything you could read by watching them, about what that must be like and how much - how long it takes, how much suffering is involved?

PREJEAN: Of course, I'm on the outside of them, but in a way, I'm on the inside of them, too, because I've gotten to know them. Conscious, imaginative (ph) being sentenced to death cannot help but anticipate and imagine their death, which is coming. It's predetermined. And they all have the same nightmare. The guards are coming for me. It's my time, and I'm kicking. I'm struggling. No, no. And they trying to drag me out of my cell. And then I wake up, and it's not - it's a dream. I look around my cell. I've known - they shared that with me and the inner anguish.

In the last moments, I was amazed that they are walking. Sister, pray that God holds my legs up as I walk. They take steps. I read scripture to them hoping the words - can you hear words when you have this white forest fire of, these are my last moments on earth? Now I'm going through this door. Now they're strapping me in. All I knew was I couldn't let them die alone.

GROSS: So you tried to be within eye contact of the men who you've accompanied on their execution.

PREJEAN: Yes, yes.

GROSS: And the prison guards enable you to be in a position where the man being executed can see you?

PREJEAN: Well, it varies. In Louisiana, you're there with the witnesses. If you see Susan Sarandon in the movie - I mean, we worked on every line and scene of this movie. And you see her putting her hand out toward him so she could stand out in the witnesses. He could see where I was. That's just what happened. And he looked at me, and I knew then he had seen my face. He knew I was there - one person in that crowd of people that believed in his dignity and did not want to see him die, that love there at the end.

But like, when I was with Joseph O'Dell in Virginia, they actually let me come in and be with him. He was strapped down, waiting for the lethal injection. He let me be there with him and put my hand on his shoulder and pray with him. The warden said, look. Don't make the prayer too long, OK? We need this to be over. It's so unbelievable what's happening. You can't take it in. I've been integrating it all these years. I don't know that I have it yet - that that happened.

GROSS: So when you're with somebody as they're being executed or when you're in the place for witnesses, what are you trying to communicate with them? Like, after the point where they can actually hear you reading the scripture, are you trying to send out some kind of emotion to them, some kind of - like, what are you trying to just exude, if that's the right word?

PREJEAN: All the words have been spoken.

GROSS: Yeah.

PREJEAN: In my faithfulness to them and in visiting them, they know my love and care for them and that I believe in their dignity. It's all presence then.

GROSS: Right.

PREJEAN: It's just pure presence like when you're at the death of anyone. You're not making long speeches. It's - there's nothing to say. You look at my face. I'll be the face of Christ for you. It's pure presence, and that's what it is.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sister Helen Prejean, and she's written a new spiritual memoir that's called "River Of Fire." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "FOUR ON SIX")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Sister Helen Prejean. She's written a new spiritual memoir called "River Of Fire," and she's best known for her work with people on death row, her work opposing the death penalty. She was dramatized in the film "Dead Man Walking," in which she was portrayed by Susan Sarandon.

At the end of the book, you publish a letter that you wrote to Pope Francis, and you made a very stirring argument on behalf of more equality for nuns and...

PREJEAN: For women in the church not just nuns.

GROSS: Yeah, for women in the church, including nuns - and one of your arguments is, how can men really understand the world if women aren't their equals? And that applies to nuns and priests. And you also write about how you can preach in Protestant churches but not in your own. You can give sermons in Protestant churches against the death penalty. And even though the pope opposes the death penalty, you can't give the same sermon in your own Catholic Church.

PREJEAN: Women can't preach in the Catholic Church. Women cannot read the gospel at mass. A young little pimply teenager who happens to be a boy could read the gospel. You got to be male. And seeing the million ways it plays out that women somehow cannot fully image Christ - it was - what I said in the letter was that women need to be in on those decision-making councils when policies are being decided in the church because the presence of women - our consciousness, our empathy, what we bring to the table - is really important for the dialogue. And if men in the church are always only talking to other men at the top decision-making levels - and that's the curia in Rome. That's the bishops when they meet. It's always all males. And that - if we don't have full dialogue with women represented - that's the fullness of human beings - we are never going to be able to embody what the gospel of Jesus is about.

GROSS: Didn't Pope Francis recently affirm that one thing that was not going to change was women being restricted from becoming priests?

PREJEAN: Yes, he has said that. He has made statements on that.

GROSS: So you still think it's going to change eventually, but not in the near future, I guess.

PREJEAN: Yeah, just because that life moves in the spirit in the church. Look how long it took - 1,600 years to change the teaching of the Catholic Church on the death penalty to unequivocal opposition. So women - it's going to change because it has to, because it's so against the gospel of Jesus to simply say because someone is a man or a woman, one can fully represent Christ and so represent him at the altar and the other one can't.

GROSS: Yeah.

PREJEAN: I mean, the more women are educated, the more people are educated, they're going to question that. Now, how do you love your church and raise the questions? You do that because you do love your church. It's why I carried on dialogue with the church for over 30 years about the death penalty question. You keep the dialogue going. You keep raising the questions, and people's experience keeps bubbling up. So here's a parish. There's a young girl that wants to be an altar server, and there's a traditionalist priest that says, no. Girls can't. And so here we go. The bubbles are rising in the pot.

GROSS: At the end of your book, you write that you are now 80. Your parents died when they were 81. Your older sister is dead. And you write, death seems to be such a crapshoot. Either it's everything - union and love with all that is - or it's nothing - disintegration into a puny pile of chemicals. How has your understanding of death changed in all the years that you've been a nun?

PREJEAN: Well, in watching people actually go to their death, I've seen how they summon their courage to make the walk. They're very afraid, but they do it. They do it. I've watched Mama, Daddy, Mary Anne. It's - Mary Anne and I were really close. And, in fact, after Mary Ann died...

GROSS: Your sister.

PREJEAN: Yeah, my sister. She was always the brave one. Like, when we were doing tomboy things like jumping from a limb to catch a rope swing, I'm the last one on the branch. And she's going, Helen, jump. Don't be such a sissy. So the words that came up inside me after she had died - because she was gone then, I couldn't hear her voice physically - was, sis, death comes for everybody. I did it. It's going to happen to you, too. Don't be a sissy. I had what it took. God brought me through it. And you can - you'll have what you need, too. And it strengthens me.

GROSS: Do you believe in a literal heaven and hell?

PREJEAN: What do you mean by literal?

GROSS: That there actually is a heaven, and that some people would be dispatched to heaven, and some people will be scorched eternally in hell.

PREJEAN: I do not believe that if we say God is a loving and merciful God that God puts people in this frying pan and zaps them in fire for all eternity, plunges them into an eternal pain. What kind of God is that? It's a mystery, of course. But I know that it cannot be the imposition of eternal pain, at least it doesn't jibe with anything I know about the God, the Abba that Jesus taught us, and that God is merciful. What does it mean to say God's merciful? You can keep people in a frying pan in hell for all eternity.

Heaven, a little imagination here, what if heaven - what if Mary Ann is right here by my side, but I can't see her? Mom and Daddy, all those - it's called the communion of saints in the Catholic Church. Not that it's a literal place, of course, but what if they have crossed over a threshold in which they have moved into a way of being that is somehow connected in love with everything, and maybe that is the heart of what it all means.

GROSS: Are there any parts of life that you regret having missed out on because of the vows that you took when you became a nun and the life that you've dedicated yourself to? It's been such a rich life in so many ways, but there are some things that you actually were pledged to deny yourself.

PREJEAN: You know, I was such an impetuous, spontaneous person, I guess in a way, immature, not rounded out in relationships, like, with men and - so it's been a slow process to awaken to the deepest dimension of the gospel, to do justice, to be in solidarity with poor people. So I have a feeling being in that kind of cocoon of protection and a limited environment in which I lived and moved and had my being might have been good for me. I think I did it exactly as I should have done it. I don't regret anything.

GROSS: Sister Helen Prejean, it's been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

PREJEAN: Terry, I love hearing that voice come on the radio. It's been a joy. Thank you so much for getting this book out because it's really important we get religion right because God, you know, religion is used in so many ways to hurt people, especially Christianity.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're seeing that right now?

PREJEAN: I'll give one example - Jeff Sessions, before him, Justice Scalia, quoting Romans 13, that if anything is the law in the United States, we obey civil authority because it has the authority of God. And Justice Scalia quoted that to justify the death penalty. And Jeff Sessions just quoted that because it's the law for people to enter the country illegally, so you can separate children from their parents. And he brought in divine authority to sanction it.

And that is really, really harmful. It is so opposite to the compassion and mercy and love that Jesus taught us that it just - I can't tell you what it does to see that happening over and over again by these people who claimed Christianity and then quote even the words of Jesus sometimes to hurt people, to disrespect them and to claim that the suffering we're causing of separating children from their parents is really God's will because it's legal. And I quote Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk - I still make retreat with the Trappist monks at Gethsemani - who said when the world ends, it'll be legal.

GROSS: (Laughter) Sister Helen, thank you so much.

PREJEAN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Sister Helen Prejean's new memoir is called "River Of Fire." After we take a short break, our critic-at-large John Powers will review a new documentary about a beekeeper in Macedonia whose world changes when strangers move in nearby. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON PARKS' "SMALL PLANET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.