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GRE Honors Extraordinary Individuals, Church at Annual Celebration


GRE Honors Extraordinary Individuals, Church at
Annual Celebration

The Rev. Anthony Ciorra, Ph.D., dean of GRE, applauds
Helen Prejean, C.S.J., who washonored with the Gaudium et

Photo by Bruce Gilbert

“The way of Jesus is love, persuasion, justice

and community, and that’s the only answer.”

By Gina Vergel

The Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education (GRE) honored those who have contributed to the mission of the school and the renewal of the church at its fifth annual Sapienta et Doctrina celebration.

“This is the church at its very best,” said the Rev. Anthony Ciorra, Ph.D., dean of GRE. “You bring us hope.”

Twelve individuals and one institution were honored at the Oct. 29 event at Rose Hill for their day-to-day work with the church.

A Gaudium et Spes award was bestowed on Helen Prejean, C.S.J., a leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty and author of the best-seller and Pulitzer Prize nominee, Dead Man Walking (Vintage, 1993).

Sister Prejean began her prison ministry in 1981 when she dedicated her life to the poor of New Orleans. While living in the St. Thomas housing project, she became pen pals with Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers, sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison.

Upon Sonnier’s request, Sister Prejean visited him repeatedly as his spiritual adviser. In doing so, her eyes were opened to the Louisiana execution process.

“The places I’ve been brought into are the kind of places where—from the time you wake up in the morning until the time you drop off to sleep at night—you receive a thousand signals that you are nothing but disposable human waste,” she said.

“We do that in our society directly and indirectly, but with people on death row, we do it in a very direct way. We say to them, ‘What you have done put you beyond the pale of humanness and we must destroy you to continue as a society.’”

The cross that Catholics wear around their necks is a symbol of execution, Sister Prejean said.

“But the cross and message of Jesus is not the message of the United States of America. So it is no surprise that 70 percent of our budget goes into the military—trying to find a violent solution to social problems,” she said. “The way of Jesus is love, persuasion, justice and community, and that’s the only answer.”

Sister Prejean said she entered into her journey with both arms on the cross. On one hand was the perpetrator, who had done an unspeakable crime, and on the other was the victim’s family who was suffering.

“Culture says you have to choose,” she said. “In the film of Dead Man Walking, you have the victim’s family saying to me, ‘Sister, it’s us or him. You can’t be on both sides.’ But the gospel of Jesus embraces both. What holds it all together is the dignity of human life—not just the innocent but also the guilty.”

Sister Prejean said she went on to see the “humanness” in Sonnier and with the help of Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of one of the victims, found the true meaning of forgiveness.

“He was the gracious one. He was the one to invite me to come and pray with him in this little chapel in St. Martinsville. As I was kneeling alongside this man, I realized as he prayed that he was praying for everyone—that his heart had already received the grace because he prayed for Mrs. Sonnier, the mother of Patrick and Eddie Sonnier, who had killed his son.”

The GRE Founder’s Award went to Cathy Canavan, Marie Gough, Marilyn Martin and RuthAnne Rubin, who in various positions at GRE have given more than 40 years of service to the school.

The Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, S.J., Award for Service to the Hispanic Community was given to Juan Lulio Blanchard, director of the Office of Hispanic Affairs of the Archdiocese of New York.

Sapientia et Doctrina Awards went to:

Paul Carty, principal of Archbishop Stepinac High School,

David Cervini, who leads the Contemporary Roman Catholic young adults group at Holy Trinity Church on the Upper West Side,

Pauline Chirchirillo, P.B.V.M., who has worked with Little Flower Children’s Services in Brooklyn,

Gaynell Cronin, an author and the director of religious education and pastoral associate in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.,

Joseph Currie, S.J., who served with distinction as director of campus ministry at Fordham for 13 years,

Thomas E. Legere, Ph.D., a psychologist who has been honored in the past for his work helping the United States military to address the problem of addiction,

Monsignor Michael Motta, an advocate of lifelong Catholic faith formation in the Archdiocese of Hartford and throughout New England,

Maureen Sullivan, O.P., a member of the theology faculty at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., and

the Church of the Presentation of Upper Saddle River, N.J., whose soup kitchen has been running for 26 years and whose ministry serves more than 1,000 people per month.


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