The execution of Timothy McVeigh


I recently came across a homily by Cardinal Albino Luciani, the future Pope John Paul I, given to petrochemical workers at a Mass which the then-patriarch of Venice celebrated on Dec. 22, 1971, in their workers’ canteen. It was a pre-Christmas meditation.

The cardinal makes the point in the Mass that God in Jesus made himself small “not only in order to become our brother, but so that we ourselves would feel more brotherly towards each other …. Being brothers is key; I am a brother not just to this or that particular person,” the cardinal points out.

And he goes on to conclude, “The culmination of love of our neighbor is that Jesus Christ even agrees to be found in the guise of the prisoner.”

Cardinal Luciani then talks about a notorious criminal people called the “Marsala Monster,” imprisoned in Sicily for killing three little girls.

“If I go visit him,” the patriarch of Venice says, “I cannot call him ‘the monster’ but will have to treat him as if he were Christ, even if he is guilty. Every time you visit a prisoner you come to visit me! Love of my neighbor, however much he hurts me, even though he may be my enemy, does even this. It is not enough to say that I am brother to this or that particular person … but even to people I find unpleasant, to everyone … there lies the love, the act of being Christian, fraternity.”

The execution of Timothy McVeigh will take place as scheduled on May 16. It seems to be the national natural act of retribution called for by a people outraged by the loss of innocent life at the instigation of a brutal killer.

But is it the proper response of a people who have come to know Jesus Christ, even in the guise of a person like prisoner Timothy McVeigh?

Cardinal Luciani would have told his petrochemical workers that execution would not be the right response. In fact he urged them, “let us try to spend Christmas in this spirit of fraternity to all.”

Pope John Paul I’s successor, Pope John Paul II, the great promoter of the mercy of God (cf. Dives in Misericordia), would say the same. He writes, in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, #56: “Punishment ought not to go to the extreme of executing someone except in cases of absolute necessity when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society from its members and that such cases are, at best, very rare if not practically nonexistent.”

Polls are showing that the American people are beginning to question a blind allegiance to execution as a solution to violence and crime in our society.

But it will take more than a change in polls to turn the tide on capital punishment as a solution to crime and violence in America.

It will take a change in hearts.