by Maureen Kramlich
March 2, 2001
In How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill speculates that the sin St. Patrick speaks of in his Confession, the one he confessed to a friend the night before he was ordained to the diaconate, was murder. St. Patrick recalls the night of his confession: "On account of anxiety and in a mournful mind I made known to my most intimate friend what I had done in my boyhood on one day, more precisely in one hour because I had not yet prevailing power" (The Confession of St. Patrick, Part III). Word of the sin resurfaced just as St. Patrick was to be ordained bishop and elder bishops began to investigate it. But on the evening of St. Patrick's trial he has a vision of himself—with the sin written on his face—standing before the elder bishops. A voice enters the vision and says that "we disapprove" the elder bishops' judgment of St. Patrick. St. Patrick concludes that the "we" is God and himself, that God joined him in his suffering at his trial. It was as if God were saying to him, "He who touches you is as he who touches the pupil of my eye" (The Confession of St. Patrick, Part III). St. Patrick survived this inquisition and was ordained Bishop.
Of course many legends surround the life of St. Patrick. There is no evidence that he used the shamrock as a tool to teach about the Trinity nor that he drove snakes out of Ireland. The "St. Patrick murder story" may be another of these legends. But it is certainly within the realm of possibilities and it illustrates a remarkable truth: No one ever is beyond God's love, mercy and grace. Even one who commits murder can become a saint.
As the Holy Father writes so eloquently about the murderer Cain, "God, who is always merciful even when he punishes, 'put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him' (Gen 4:15). He thus gave him a distinctive sign, not to condemn him to the hatred of others, but to protect and defend him from those wishing to kill him, even out of a desire to avenge Abel's death. Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this" (Evangelium Vitae, No. 9).
There are almost 1.3 million people living in prisons in the United States. Of these, 3,726 are on death row. I wonder how many saints or potential saints are among them. How many saints have already been executed or, more importantly, how many potential saints were executed before they had the opportunity to become saints?
I realize it is difficult to envision saints among America's most hardened and brutal criminals. For those of us "on the outside," newspaper headlines like "Three People Killed Execution-Style" define the men and women on America's death row. But the whole point of St. Patrick's Confession is that God leaves no one behind, that God's grace is real and transforming. And if St. Patrick truly committed murder, his Confession is a testimony to the truth that even a murderer can one day achieve holiness.
So I do not exclude the possibility that there are saints among us living in prison. Many prisoners live faith-filled and prayerful lives. I know this because I know several death row prisoners. In fact, one man that I know may be executed by the time you read this. He is a sincere and dutiful Catholic. I have seen him receive Communion on death row. He has spoken honestly and openly about his guilt and is truly remorseful. Another man I know reads the Bible for two hours every night and prays at least three times each day.
I am well aware that some regard the religiosity of prisoners as a con. Perhaps it is for some. But I suspect that the experience of being locked-down for over twenty hours each day, in a small concrete cell, presents an opportunity for a very deep faith to develop. St. Patrick, after all, developed his faith while in captivity.
And to those who suggest that if a death row prisoner has achieved sanctity, there is reason all the more to execute him because he is ready to go home to God, consider this: imagine if St. Patrick had been denied the chance to bring the Catholic faith to Ireland because he had been "sent home to God" by execution.
(Maureen Kramlich is a public policy analyst with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities).