Mount St. Joseph University

Keynoter Urges Catholic Communicators to Be ‘Alive in the Fire’

Dateline: student newspaper


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Megan Simmermeyer poses with S. Helen Prejean.

Sister Helen Prejean, well known for her work to abolish the death penalty, was keynote speaker for a Feb. 3 gathering of The Salesian Guild—named after St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers. It was their 74th annual dinner celebrating Catholic communicators in the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky areas. Through my co-op with the Sisters of Charity Communication Office I was fortunate enough to attend the annual meeting, and hear the keynote speaker, whom the emcee said “needs no introduction.” 

An advocate, spiritual advisor, and best-selling author, Prejean has given numerous speeches advocating for the sanctity of life and against the death penalty. Her address, “Staying Alive in the Holy Fire: Field Notes of a Jesus Advocate,” outlined her experiences in advocating for the abolition of the death penalty and her journey through the fire.  

“Don’t ask for understanding,” she said, when discussing her experiences. “Ask for the fire.” Witnessing her first execution set a fire in her soul that has continued to blaze, and through that experience, she truly found her ministry in advocating for the abolishment of the death penalty. In her address, she talked about her journey in writing her acclaimed book Dead Man Walking, which was published in 1993 but continues to be relevant nearly three decades after its publication. The book chronicles her journey through the fire, as she walked with condemned inmates, as well as the victims’ families. 

Each experience was difficult in its own way, she said, and she regrets having avoided the families of victims for so long. At the request of her publisher, she brought them into her journey and learned along the way. The fire, she says, is an awakening and a call to justice and social activism. Growing up in a life of privilege, she was blind to social injustice, especially that in the South. But she says, “The Gospel awakens us out of culture.” Living among the powerless and vulnerable of the African American community in her ministry as a Sister, she learned so much, and her fellow humans were her teachers.

“Just to be awake is to be close to the fire,” she says. Her address ended with a call for Catholic communicators to give voice to those with none and to believe in the power of words. She said she used to believe writing to be a passive, ineffective medium, but over the years, she has learned “The power is in the story,” she says. 

The evening began with Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in downtown Cincinnati, followed by the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award to William R. Burleigh, retired Catholic journalist and editor. We then headed to the Church’s parish center for some refreshments and a short reception. It was a chance for me and other non-Guild members to mingle and meet Catholic communicators from the area, as well as for members to reconnect with each other. After all, the Guild meets only once a year.

After a short welcome, we were treated to dinner, following which Bruce Petrie, Jr., an attorney at Graydon LLP, offered a brief media law update in which he discussed the gap between Baby Boomers and Millennials. Many of the Guild members fall into the Boomer category, and Petrie said that a fairly defined divide exists between the two generations, which can be a hindrance to how each generation perceives the other, especially in terms of communication, like in the reading and interpretation of the United States Constitution. 

But Petrie urged his audience to have hope because despite the gaps between our generations, the Constitution is amendable, as we have already seen 27 times since the document’s creation. The best practice when reaching across to younger generations, according to Petrie, is simply to encourage them and be supportive. He said the next generation has already experienced so much and that they seem to be losing hope, so the Boomers need to offer their time, energy, talents, and most importantly, encouragement.

Following Petrie’s speech, Jeanne Hunt--author, journalist, and teacher--was recognized as the Distinguished Communicator of the Year.

Through the power of words and stories, the Catholic communicators and Salesian Guild offer voice to a great many issues and themes. It was a privilege to be a part of the gathering and learn about the Guild and its mission through a night of great discussion (and food).