I Was on Death Row, and You Walked with Me: Being Prolife out on the Margins

So a priest, a nurse, and a lawyer walk into a prison . . . and they’re all the same guy. CNN had a great profile Friday of Fr Neil Kookoothe, pastor of St Clarence in the Diocese of Cleveland. Fr Kookoothe’s unique skill set—he got a nursing license and a law degree before entering the seminary—helped him free a man from Death Row, and led to legislation widening Ohio’s discovery rules.

D’Ambrosio, Kookoothe said, had no previous criminal record. He had neither an alibi nor motive. He told Kookoothe he was home alone sleeping at the time of Klann’s killing.

A three-judge panel convicted D’Ambrosio and sentenced him to death.

As D’Ambrosio languished on death row during the appeal process, Kookoothe agreed to look at his case. The priest saw a red flag, informed by his medical training.

It’s a fascinating story, well worth a read. (The case was also featured in an episode of CNN’s Death Row Stories that aired Sunday night.)

But it’s also a terrific meditation for Lent. Fr Kookoothe has been counseling prisoners for 18 years—going, as Pope Francis asks our shepherds to do, out to the margins, coming back smelling of the smelliest of sheep. He has been present at two executions, and walked with many others under our heaviest sentences. This is prolife work. This is priesthood. This is discipleship, and I want to draw attention to it in a time when Catholics too often feel they have to choose one form of any of these over another. Innocents in the womb over sinners on Death Row. Leading the flock rather than going after the strays. Prayer over activism, piety over social justice. Or all the vice versas.

We can—and must—embrace all of it. Fr Kookoothe shows us how.

During Lent, let us remember that we are all on Death Row, yet there is One who walks with us and invites us to redemption and release. Let us, with Fr Kookoothe as an example, pray for the courage and the mercy to go out to the farthest margins with Christ, and find Christ there.

 


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