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Vatican honors American serving death row inmates


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John Burger - published on 10/01/21 - updated on 10/01/21

Dale Recinella, who has accompanied the condemned to the execution chamber, said he and his wife have "many baptismal godchildren" on death row.

The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Life has given its first Guardian of Life Award to an American layman who has dedicated his life to ministering to death row inmates. 

Dale Recinella, an attorney who found a second calling in prison ministry, has served for more than two decades in Florida State Prison in Raiford, which has the second-largest death row population in the United States.

In accepting the honor in Rome this week, Recinella said the award was a statement to the men and women sitting on death row about “how important their life is.” 

He said that he and his wife, Susan, have many “baptismal godchildren” on death row. Recinella, 69, said that a reporter once asked a death-row inmate why he wanted to become a Catholic, and the man responded, “I want to belong to the Church that wants to belong to me.” 

When Recinella has posed the same question, many inmates respond, “Because that’s the Church that wants me.” 

The Pontifical Academy for Life said that the Guardian of Life Award is for those who have “distinguished themselves in their private and professional lives for significant actions in support of the protection and promotion of human life.”  

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said the ministry to death row inmates is “essential to bring comfort to those who were violently torn from this world.”

Recinella has provided spiritual counseling, materials and teaching to inmates awaiting scheduled execution at Florida State Prison. He has assisted in final spiritual preparations on the day of execution, accompaniment for the final goodbyes to family and loved ones, presence for the condemned at the execution, and pastoral assistance to the family of the condemned during deathwatch and post-execution, especially as needed to recover the personal effects and the remains of the condemned. 

If an execution is stayed, the inmate is returned to death row until the stay is lifted. 

Recinella’s wife has worked with him in providing pastoral care to inmate families during executions, distribution of the Eucharist and sacramentals at cell-front, chapel services and teaching for general population inmates. 

He told Catholic News Service that death row inmates cannot leave their cells, even to go to chapel, so the Church must go to them. He has provided in-depth spiritual counseling for inmates through one-on-one pastoral appointments made available in special rooms provided by the prison administrations. This includes end-of-life spiritual counseling and pastoral services at bedside when terminally ill inmates are moved from death row to the Florida Department of Corrections Regional Medical Center. 

Recinella has recently taken up ministry to families and loved ones of murder victims. He told CNS that now  that he is semi-retired, the Church in Florida is working to make sure that this ministry continues “in a very vibrant and active way” by finding dedicated people to follow in his footsteps. He said “a former NFL linebacker” is moving into the position.

The inmates “are very excited that a former pro-football player would want to come and see them,” he told CNS.

Recinella has a Master’s Degree in Pastoral Theology from Ave Maria University, has been certified as a Catholic Correctional Chaplain by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and was commissioned by the Bishop of St. Augustine. He has taught in the Program for Prison and Detention Ministry at St. Leo University in Tampa/St. Petersburg. 

After receiving a doctor of law degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1976, he embarked on a law career, ending up as senior attorney at Ruden McClosky in Tallahassee. In 1996, he moved to Rome to become director of staff development for Baker & McKenzie. He then shifted to education, teaching in the MBA programs at the Rome campuses for both Temple University and St. John’s University. 

Then, in August of 1998, he became the Catholic correctional chaplain for Florida’s death row in Tallahassee.

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