Papal Academy awards “Guardian of Life” award to American death row chaplain

VATICAN CITY – Death row inmates in Florida jails call their 6ft by 9ft cell their “home”, with some having lived in their “home” for 40 years – longer than a lay Catholic chaplain has said ‘he had lived in his family home in Tallahassee.

So when Dale Recinella, the lay minister, goes from cell to cell to offer pastoral care, religious education and spiritual accompaniment, “we go from house to house, from cell to cell, and this is where we meet them. “. These are men and women who can’t go out, “they can’t even come to the chapel,” so the church has to go to them.

Recinella has served as a Catholic correctional chaplain for death row and solitary confinement on behalf of the Catholic bishops of Florida for decades.

Just a few months away from her 70th birthday, Recinella was at the Vatican to be honored by the Pontifical Academy for Life and to receive her very first Guardian of Life award at a special evening on September 28. The academy held its general assembly on site in Rome and online from September 27-29.

Recinella said on September 28 that as he moves into “semi-retirement,” the Florida church is working to ensure that this ministry continues “in a very dynamic and active way” by finding people. dedicated to follow in his footsteps. .

The “much younger man” who has returned to the physically demanding job of the ministry in solitary confinement is “a former NFL linebacker,” Recinella said.

The detainees “are very excited that a former professional football player wants to come and see them,” he said. Recinella has spent over 20 years as a successful business and financier lawyer, and he said inmates teased him, telling him he was fine as a chaplain until the church actually a former football star.

Ensuring that men and women on death row receive constant care and accompaniment tells them that they are “important to the heart of the church, and of course that’s right, that’s why we are. there, ”Recinella said.

Even though he felt called upon to deal with death row inmates, it was not easy, he said.

Years ago, he was appointed “co-spiritual advisor to an infamous serial killer” whose victims had often been college-aged women – women the same age as his daughters at the time.

He went to an elderly priest for advice and begged him, “I can’t do this. Whenever I think of his victims, I think of my daughters. I can not.

But the priest told him that as a lay Catholic he had already made a commitment to God to do this when he was baptized.

He said the priest told him, “It was up to the inmate to choose who he wanted to accompany him until his death to remind him that Jesus loves him, and you said ‘yes’ to that when you said received your sacraments of initiation into the church, and as you continued to participate in the Catholic Church through the sacraments, you have already said “yes”. “

This made it one of the most difficult “death vigils” he had to prepare for, he said, but he knew from working with the inmate that the man had made a true declaration of faith. when he sang Psalm 23 while tied to the stretcher. direction lethal injection.

People of Christian faith who believe the death penalty is permissible attribute it to a kind of “harsh justice” that shows no mercy, he said. “The world wants revenge.”

He said that it is a blessing and the work of God’s grace that the Catholic Church has been led – starting with Saint John Paul II through to Popes Benedict XVI and Francis – to finally accept that the punishment death is no longer admissible today.

“We are called to a better way. And I have watched this transformation,” in the United States and other countries, he said, of “our church trying to get us out of this pit of vengeance like the only solution. It is not a solution, the only answer to horrible crimes. “

Recinella compared the evolutionary stance of the church away from accepting capital punishment as a last resort to the evolution of society away from the use of primitive tools for their needs.

“The Pope said, as we left the chamber pots behind instead of the indoor plumbing and left all these other things behind, we have to leave that behind. It’s time to live in our modern age and we we have the means “to ensure highly secure detention, he said, and” to protect innocent people in society without the state killing anyone. “

By protecting the lives and dignity of these men and women with alternatives such as long-term sentences, it gives them all the time they need “to come to God”, especially since it is necessary. usually years of counseling and being freed from addictions “before they can, with a clear mind, think of God.”

He said that before starting his work in death row ministry, he had always heard that “the threat of execution brings people to God.” No, this is not the case. This brings them to their lawyers, to fight the lack of execution. “

“It’s actually a distraction and a drain on their energy to fight the death penalty” instead of immediately coming to terms with how they are going to constructively spend their time in prison, he said, especially in the search for a relationship with God.

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