Death Penalty Prayer Vigil – Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix

Here is the prepared text for Bishop Olmsted’s remarks at the prayer vigil for Clarence Dixon and an end to the death penalty in Arizona.

May 10, 2022

As Jesus died on the Cross as a convicted felon, Jesus’ mother was there. Luke describes it thus (Lk 23:33-43),

“They crucified Jesus with two criminals, one on his right and the other on his left… Now one of the criminals… swore at Jesus… The other, however, rebuking him, said in response, ‘Are you not afraid of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been justly condemned, for the punishment we have received corresponds to our crimes, but this man did nothing criminal. Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you enter your Kingdom.’ He replied: “Amen, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise”.

Before Jesus’ sacrificial death, Mary heard the repentant criminal’s prayerful call, and she heard her beloved Son respond with the promise of eternal life. All this, Mary meditated in her heart, pierced by the pain of seeing the crucifixion of her innocent Son but also moved by the testimony of His Holy Sacrifice which had already redeemed a repentant criminal.

Surely Mary the Mother of Jesus is with us tonight and is close to the victims and families affected by horrific crimes like the one Clarence Dixon was convicted of. At the same time, Mary remembers the sincere repentance of the Good Thief and the abundant mercy with which Jesus looked upon him. At every moment of our life, even at the last hour, the Lord offers us the freedom to be converted and to live. For Jesus does not desire the death of the sinner but that he humbly return to the Father and be forgiven.

Durante una Misa in St. Louis, Missouri, in enero 1999, el Santo Padre Juan Pablo II dijo: “La nueva evangelización llama a seguidores de Cristo que sean uncondicionalmente pro-vida: que anuncien, celebren y sirvan el Evangelio de la vida en cada situacion. Un signo de esperanza es el reconocimiento cada vez mayor de que la dignidad de la vida humana nunca debe ser arrebatada.

Tristemente, mañana, nuestro estado de Arizona estará llevando a cabo una ejecución. Por eso, estamos reunidos esta noche para orar por las victimas de violence y sus familias, por el alma de los que se encuentran sentenciados a muerte, y por los civicos de nuestro estado para que logren abolish la muerte innecesaria a través de la pena of death. Dice el Catecismo (#2267), “La pena de muerte es inadmissible, porque atenta contra la inviolabilidad y la dignidad de la persona.”

As Jesus died on the cross, he cried out in anguish to his Heavenly Father with the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? You are far from my supplication and the cry of my distress. O my God, I call by day and you don’t answer, I call by night and I can’t find peace. Perhaps the same cry of anguish came from the family of the victim of the man who is to be executed tomorrow, or from the family of the condemned man. These cries of anguish are not ignored by those who oppose the application of the death penalty. But we, who oppose the death penalty, are convinced that even a terrible crime does not take away the human dignity of the criminal. Everyone is created in the image and likeness of God, and for every human person, even the greatest sinner, Jesus suffered and died on the Cross to redeem us from our sins.

When Pope John Paul II spoke out against the use of the death penalty, he was referring to God’s forgiveness for Cain and the protection He gave him. Often during his pontificate he called for an end to the death penalty. When, for example, he visited Saint Louis, Missouri, on January 27, 1999, he said,

A sign of hope is the growing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great harm. Modern society has the means to protect itself, without definitively depriving criminals of the possibility of reforming themselves. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”

Catholic teaching on the death penalty does not stand in a vacuum. As a mother, the Church has the deepest compassion for the victims of brutal crimes as well as for their families. Accordingly, we must always pray for the healing of all those affected by these crimes. The use of the death penalty in our country today is not evil because it is the equivalent of an inherently evil murder like abortion, assisted suicide or euthanasia. These actions involve the taking of innocent human lives and are never justifiable in any situation. Yet, even though the death penalty is not considered inherently evil, the Catholic Church remains troubled by its use in contemporary society and is convinced that it is not necessary today. We believe that all human life, every human person – from conception to death – is sacred. Remember the words of the Lord (Lev 20:26): “You shall be sacred to me; for I, the Lord, am sacred.

But doesn’t the criminal found guilty of a horrible crime lose the sanctity of his life? A better way to ask the question might be this: Is a convicted murderer no longer made in the image of God? Certainly, he should be punished according to the seriousness of the crime. Certainly, society must be protected against someone who is proven to be a murderer. But even a murderer is not outside the infinite mercy of God. The possibility of true repentance and salvation remains for each person as long as he lives. Moreover, the use of the death penalty, when other means are available to ensure the safety of society, is problematic for the community as a whole because it actually contributes to a “culture of death”. Such a “solution” uses killing to solve a problem that has other viable solutions.

Pope Francis has repeatedly called for the abolition of the death penalty. For example, he said (11 October 2017; CCL 2267): “… the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person. It contributes to a culture of death. We call for the abolition of the death penalty in all states of America and in all countries. Tonight, in particular, we pray for Clarence Dixon, that if the execution takes place, he may die with a repentant and contrite heart. In union with Mary, we pray, Lord, have mercy on us all.

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