You probably don't know this side of the saint associated with Santa Claus!
After witnessing 10 federal executions in the United States since July, people across the country and the world have turned their attention to the death penalty — writing letters, making phone calls, and taking to social media to protest the state-sponsored killing of men and women made in the image and likeness of God. As we seek to honor the dignity of even the greatest sinners, let’s look to the saints whose opposition to the death penalty or ministry to condemned criminals can inspire us. May they (and those saints who were themselves executed) intercede for all who are condemned to death and for those who seek to serve them.
St. Nicholas (270-343) was bishop of Myra when (upon returning from a trip) he was told that three men had been sentenced to death. Nicholas ran through the city, reaching the condemned men just in time to grab the sword from the executioner’s hands and free them before storming across town to berate the governor, who had condemned the men in exchange for a bribe. Nicholas gained such a reputation that even during his life people sought his intercession to save them from execution. One group of men had been sentenced to die and prayed to the still-living Nicholas for a miracle. The bishop appeared to both the emperor and the prefect in dreams that very night, demanding that they free the unjustly condemned men. So disturbed were they that they obeyed and the men were saved.
St. Martha Wang Luo Mande (1802-1861) was a Chinese cook and laundress with no power to commute death sentences or put pressure on officials to pardon the condemned. She could, however, visit the imprisoned, which is just what she did when seminarians were jailed. She brought them food, did their laundry, and smuggled letters between them and their bishop. On the day the seminarians were scheduled to be killed, a guard saw Martha doing laundry and taunted her with the threat of execution. “Ah, well, if they can die, so can I,” said the woman who had ministered to them so faithfully, and went placidly to her death.
St. Joseph Cafasso (1811-1860) was known as the Apostle of the Gallows, an Italian priest who had once prayed that every man he accompanied to the gallows would be converted; this prayer was answered as each of the 68 men he ministered to died calling on the name of Jesus, having received the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Fr. Cafasso urged his penitents to offer their deaths as an act of penance and assured them that Jesus would save them. He even referred to these men as his “hanged saints,” so confident was he of their salvation after such sincere repentance.
St. Raphael Kalinowski (1835-1907) left the Russian army to fight for Poland against Russia. Kalinowski became minister of war for the Poles on condition that he would not be required to condemn anyone to death, however heinous the crime. When the Polish cause was destroyed, the Russians did not extend the same courtesy to Kalinowski, who was condemned to death as a traitor. His sentence was soon commuted for fear he would be considered a martyr to the cause of Polish independence and Kalinowski worked in the salt mines of Siberia for 10 years. After his release, Kalinowski became a Carmelite priest, in which role he served for 25 years.
Bl. Nicholas Bunkerd Kitbamrung (1895-1944) was a Thai priest who had almost been refused ordination because of his stubbornness. Grace had transformed him in his years of formation, though, from an impossibly stubborn and arrogant man to a determined and persistent evangelist (though he still struggled with pride). After 18 years in seminary, he was finally ordained and served as a priest for 15 years before the Thai government arrested him for ringing church bells and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. Persistent Fr. Nicholas saw his imprisonment as no obstacle to his ministry and continued to serve while incarcerated, baptizing 68 prisoners before dying of tuberculosis.
Servant of God Jacques Fesch (1930-1957) was a wealthy French atheist who shot and killed a police officer during a botched robbery. He was arrested and condemned to death, but during his three years on death row he went from ridiculing the Catholic faith to weeping over his sins, begging his wife to forgive him, and looking forward to his execution as the day he would meet Jesus. The diary he kept after his conversion shows a heart passionately in love with the Lord, a model of life well-lived even on death row.
St. John Paul II (1920-2005) was an advocate for life at every stage. In the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, he said, “[Punishment] ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” His advocacy for the limitation of capital punishment laid the groundwork for Pope Francis’ recent revision to the Catechism, which now states, “Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide” (CCC 2267). St. John Paul’s commitment to the rehabilitation of criminals was no mere theory but extended even to his own attempted assassin, a man whom he visited in prison to extend forgiveness even as he was still wounded from the attack.
Did the Church change its teaching on the death penalty?