Deacon baptizes man on death row before scheduled execution

From the Georgia Bulletin:

Warren Hill received the sacraments of the Catholic Church on Feb. 14, in a confined area near his cell where he was awaiting his execution in five days.

Deacon Richard Tolcher, who had been meeting regularly with the 52-year-old and teaching him about prayer, the sacraments and the Catholic faith, baptized Hill. Then Father Austin Fogarty, who celebrated Mass in the small holding area where prisoners usually meet with lawyers, gave him his first Communion and, with the permission of Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, confirmed Hill. Following Mass, Father Fogarty also gave him the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Deacon Norm Keller assisted at the Mass.

Deacon Tolcher, head of the archdiocesan prison ministry, regularly attends the Mass that is offered at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson for Death Row inmates. One day last fall, he sat next to Hill and after Mass asked if he would like to meet for spiritual direction. They began to meet regularly, arranged via the prison chaplain. Using a catechetical book, they would talk about the faith, the deacon would give instruction, and then they would pray, often the rosary and sometimes the quiet prayer of contemplation.

Hill has been coming to Mass for several months and is “very, very sincere” about his faith, the deacon said. He told the deacon he did not go to church as a child and wanted to be baptized.

When Deacon Tolcher was the clergyman designated to celebrate the sacrament of baptism for Hill, he found the familiar words very moving.

“What was really different about it was the words had so much more meaning. When you speak of everlasting life, for a baby that is far in the future. In this case it is imminent. When you speak of the Holy Spirit, you are collapsing his life into five days,” Deacon Tolcher said.

“Every part had a very special meaning,” he said. “It was the same face I’d seen extensively for the last six months, and it was the same person, and we were taking this bold step.”

“He was very happy to be there—you could see it in his face. His smile was there again. I really feel like there was an encounter with Christ,” the deacon added.

“It confirmed for me the beauty of the sacraments, not only baptism, but the Eucharist, the anointing of the sick, the confirmation. He understood the significance of it. Maybe it was because of his circumstances. He fully wanted to do what he was doing,” he said.

Deacon Tolcher was to spend the day of the scheduled execution with Hill and was also asked by his attorneys to accompany him to his execution.

“When I told him that I was going to be with him and his family from morning until night if the execution takes place, he said, ‘I appreciate that.’”

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