What I Learned from Writing to a Death Row Inmate

My heart jumped within my chest when I saw the letter. I had sent it a few weeks ago, and it was returned — but it looked like it had been opened. There was a stamp on it indicating that the man I had been writing to had been executed.

For over a year, I had been writing letters to a death row inmate, and touching death row with my letters taught me so much. Now, whatever his judgment was here on earth, it didn’t matter. He now stood before Jesus, the just and merciful Judge, and he would have to answer only to Him.

(My reflections are not meant to be to be a full explanation of the Church’s teaching on capital punishment, but rather my personal encounter of a man who lived his last years of life on death row. For a fuller explanation of what the Church teaches on the subject, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2267, or read this article from Cardinal Dulles.)

On the day of the annual March for Life, I hope my experience serves as a reminder that being pro-life is a part of every area of our lives and every issue in our world, not just that of the unborn.

Here’s what I learned:

1. Each person, no matter what their crimes and sins have been, are created in the image and likeness of God. This belief is what it means to be pro-life.

It is this dignity that makes us human. As I received letters back from my friend on death row, I learned about his past, his family and his hopes. It was in our letters back and forth that I was able to encounter Christ in the poverty of his cell. It was my way of reaching out and touching a modern untouchable. Our letters were icons that the dignity of humanity still existed and that, through God’s grace, I could grow to love someone who had done horrendous deeds.

2. God’s mercy makes no exceptions. We all need Jesus.

St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Up to this point in my life, I had graded how good I was on a curve. I was doing better than a lot of others, so therefore I was a good person. While my sins were different than my pen pal’s, we both stood before Jesus in need of His mercy. We were both sinners. I realized that, though I was making excuses and exceptions, God’s mercy makes no exceptions. We all need to call on God’s mercy: Jesus is waiting for each of us to turn to Him and ask for it. Our Father in Heaven will come running to each one of us when we turn our hearts to Him.

3. We need to proclaim the gospel with urgency so that all can experience this mercy.

I do not know if my pen pal had opened the letter and read it before he was executed. I hope he did. It was a letter about the good thief, St. Dismas. I wrote about how he, a convicted criminal, realized his offences toward God and toward others before Jesus. Then Jesus looked at Dismas with a glance of Divine Mercy and promised that he would be with Him in paradise that day.

I hope that my friend in death row became Jesus’ friend before his execution. When life and death are on the line (which, eternally, they always are), we must proclaim the gospel joyfully and urgently. Our proposal of the gospel to others will give them the opportunity to live in the eternal victory of Christ the King.

In this Year of Mercy, we are called to be ambassadors of mercy. We should not hold back from loving those far from Christ and bringing them back to Jesus and His Church. Let’s bring our friends back to the confessional, be a listening ear for those who feel misunderstood and show others that God’s mercy and grace not only heals them, but restores them and elevates them as children of Almighty God!

Nathan Stanley
Nathan Stanley
Nathan Stanley is a writer, speaker and full-time staff member with FOCUS where he currently serves as the Sr. Director of Talent & Leadership Development. Nathan has provided training and catechesis on evangelization, discipleship, leadership, organizational culture and strategy to young people, parish staff, and clergy throughout the country. Nathan encountered Jesus Christ as a student at Benedictine College and became a FOCUS missionary upon his graduation in 2004. Nathan's passion for Christ and His Church is the foundation of his leadership. Nathan is dedicated to raising up the next generation of Catholic leaders for the Church and society. Nathan graduated magnum cum laude with a M.A. in Theology from the Augustine Institute. He married, Lauren, in 2010 and they live outside of Denver Colorado with their three children.

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