Letter from Msgr. Schaedel for bulletin of July 16, 2000
Many of you have asked me to repeat the comments I made last week at Masses concerning the Church’s teaching on capital punishment. Here is a good part of the text of my homily as given at the 4:30 p.m. and 12:15 p.m. Masses:
Thursday, July 6, was the Feast of Saint Maria Goretti. Maria Goretti is a relatively “modern saint” with an unusual story. She lived in a small Italian village around 1900. Following the example of her parents, Maria was a deeply religious child. At the time of her First Communion she had promised Jesus that she would never offend Him by sin. When she was only twelve, Maria came under the wicked watchful eye of a neighbor boy, Alessandro Serenelli. He was only nineteen at the time, but his addiction to pornography was rotting away his mind. One day, Alessandro attempted to force Maria into doing things she knew were mortally sinful. When she refused, Alessandro flew into a rage. Infuriated, he took a dagger, repeatedly stabbing Maria fourteen times. Just before she died, Maria was heard to whisper, “I forgive you, Alessandro.”
Yet her unique story does not end there. Fifty years ago, when Pope Pius XII canonized Maria Goretti a saint, her own mother was in Rome for the ceremony. And even more incredible, her murderer, Alessandro Serenelli, was there also! While serving a long prison term, the bitter, unrepentant Alessandro had a dream in which Maria appeared to him holding fourteen flowers, one for each wound he had inflicted. He made a good confession. On his release from prison, he entered a monastery where he spent the rest of his life doing penance. And Alessandro was there in the front row in Rome when Maria Goretti, the little girl he had murdered, was declared a saint!
Prisoners were on our minds last weekend. The Criterion had several stories about prisons or capital punishment. The bishops of Indiana asked us to preach on the Death Penalty at Mass. In this Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul declared July 9 to be the Jubilee Observance Day for Prisoners. The Holy Father suggested that in the spirit of Jubilee some prison sentences could be reduced. Archbishop Buechlein celebrated Mass last Saturday with inmates of the Federal Prison in Terre Haute—the only Federal Death Row facility in the country. Recent Catholic teaching clarifies that the Church is basically opposed to the death penalty. Yet for many people, that’s hard to hear; it’s hard to take. Criminals deserve punishment. What about the victims of violent crime? How about our law enforcement officers? The Church has always taught—and continues to teach—that the civil authority has every right to take whatever steps are necessary to safeguard the common good. Civil authority has every right to punish the guilty. So it just doesn’t seem fair. Most criminals get just what they deserve. A Jubilee Day for Prisoners or preaching against the Death Penalty can somehow seem unnecessary.
Church teaching is not always popular. Lots of people, including Catholics don’t like what the Church teaches. Recently the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage was under attack by the media. They don’t think it’s fair. Christ Himself was not always well received. From the very beginning, Jesus said things people didn’t like. The Gospel found Jesus in the synagogue back in His hometown, preaching to the hometown crowd. And they don’t like it. Who does He think He is? They’ve all known Him since He was a child. These are the old neighbors who know His parents, His “brothers”—or what we would call today—cousins. And now here is this carpenter’s boy telling them what’s right or wrong, what they should do or what they should not do. The crowd is offended. The end of the Gospel relates how this particular preaching mission was a flop. “So He was not able to perform any mighty deed there…He was amazed at their lack of Faith.” (Mark 6:6) From the very beginning, the Church’s teaching has not been based on what people feel or what seems fair or what public opinion will allow. What people want to hear is not the criteria used for God’s Word. The Gospel message is rooted in Truth. Catholic teaching is not determined by public opinion. And so, it is not always well received either.
For many, the Death Penalty is a good example. The Church’s opposition to the Death Penalty is hard to hear. Church teaching on this issue has shifted a bit in recent times. Times change. Practically speaking, there are many arguments against it: The United States is the only highly developed country that has capital punishment; most nations don’t. Studies show that because of the way our justice system works, the death penalty is more than twice as expensive as life imprisonment. Over the years, we realize that far too many innocent people have been put to death for crimes they did not commit. Some were mentally retarded. Others would argue that seeing the offender put to death makes the victim’s family feel better. Yet some families say it only made things worse. Studies show that capital punishment has not deterred crime. The heart of what the Church says on this topic comes from Pope John Paul’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae—The Gospel of Life. Very simply put, the Holy Father says that followers of Christ are unconditionally pro-life. Not just in cases where it seems fair. Punishing criminals must be about protecting citizens, then perhaps reforming the criminal. But it’s not about revenge. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that that the death penalty is justified only if there are absolutely no other means to protect society from an individual. The Church then goes on to say that such cases are “very rare.” In fact, “they practically do not exist at all.” Today, there are other more effective ways to protect society or to punish criminals while at the same time respecting God’s gift of human life.
Maria Goretti is a saint for our times. She is a role model for young people especially in these times when all of us are confronted with so many temptations. The character of Alessandro Serenelli, her murderer, has meaning for us as well. Already plunged into the depths of hell by his perverted fantasies, he tried to take Maria with him. Had he been given the death penalty upon his conviction, Alessandro might have remained there forever. But through the prayers of Saint Maria Goretti, through the grace of God, he repented. When Maria Goretti was canonized a saint, Alessandro was not on Death Row, but in the front row in Saint Peter’s Square. Whether or not it seems right or fair—that’s the way God works. Without condition, the gift of human life is God’s gift to us. Where there is life, there is always hope.
The Novena to the Holy Spirit leading up to our celebration of the Great Jubilee appears in today’s bulletin and in this week’s Criterion.
Are there any adults here who have not been confirmed? Many of those to be confirmed at the Jubilee Mass on September 16 will be active adult Catholics who for some reason were never confirmed. If you would like to be confirmed, please see Father Duvelius or me as soon as possible.
Faithfully yours in God’s Providence,