The 1996 film "Dead Man Walking" featured an Oscar winning performance by Susan Sarandon in the role of death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean. Throughout the movie, she forms a bond with condemned killer Matthew Poncelat, brilliantly played with defiance by Sean Penn.
In the climactic scene, as Poncelat waits to hear the title words on his way to the death chamber, Sister Helen comforts him in his hour of terror. Separated by the restraint of glass, she sings to him in a capella fashion the words of a well known Catholic hymn, "Be Not Afraid."
She sings alone and unafraid. She sings to bring peace, to bring strength to a man who knows that in short fashion he will be dead.
"If you pass through raging waters in the sea, you shall not drown. If you walk amid the burning flames you shall not be harmed. If you stand before the gates of Hell and death is at your side, know that I am with you through it all. Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come follow me and I shall give you rest."
It is as powerful and dramatic a piece of work as I have ever seen. When I saw the movie in Clayton, the row behind us contained three nuns, all sobbing in unison. Even now, I get choked up just thinking about it.
Recent graduates, high school and college, are encouraged by their soon-to-be forgotten commencement speakers to go out into the world and "make a difference."
Rarely, are they told the how or the why to change the world, but the speakers encourage nonetheless. But it is not ignorance that retards the winds of change, not a lack of knowledge that causes the status quo to remain, but the presence of fear. The fear of failure, the fear of rejection, the fear of pain, the fear of death. These most human of emotions are what separate the hero from the rest of the herd.
On Saturday, the 17th of May, our youngest child graduated from Fontbonne University. It is a small Catholic institution which places great emphasis on individual student development. Fontbonne will never play in the Final Four, or in the Rose Bowl, but what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in heart.
At the ceremony the night before, the graduates were each given a lit candle by the Dean of Academic Affairs, a symbol of the charge to go forth and "be a light to the world," to go forth and accomplish great things, no matter the obstacles, no matter the trials, in other words, to "Be not afraid."
The phrase "Be not afraid" was a favorite inspirational message of the late Pope John Paul, emboldening the Polish shipbuilders' union to persevere in their strike for better working conditions, an action that later led to the lowering of the Iron Curtain, the fall of Communism in Europe. The power of words to motivate the souls of men cannot ever be denied.
While it has become all too common for politicians to quote, debate and manipulate Scripture, roots run deep when the phrase and speaker are genuine.
"Be not afraid" appears in the New Testament some 365 different times. I learned that by attending the most recent Madison County Men's prayer breakfast, attended by Bishop Lucas and more than 400 men from the area, including three past presidents of the Bar Association.
George Romero, a former street level cop in Los Angeles-turned motivational speaker, urged – in the most forceful tones – the attendees to be bold, to take action, to speak out when the cause is just and the times so demand – to conquer the primal fears that entrap even the boldest, to "Be not afraid."
It is not easy to overcome fear. It is not easy to say that which needs to be said in the Public Square. The fear of rejection, the fear of retaliation has certain paralyzing effects. But if that ever illusive goal of becoming a "Light to the World" is to be realized, then fear must be subdued.
We are poised on a season of massive political turbulence. Voices speaking the truth, at least as the truth is so revealed, must be lifted in a bold chorus. No matter how superficially attractive or politically correct a candidate may be, if they lack a moral compass, it is right to oppose their election, risking the sling and arrows of the outrageous fortune of public opinion.
The truth is oft times not pretty, but it is nevertheless as valuable to the Body Politic as air or water is to the Body Human.
Injustice flourishes in timid shadows. Justice – real justice – thrives in the sunshine of the truth. It needs only to find concerned gardeners. "Be Not Afraid."