It is nearing 5:30 p.m., the time when the family will arrive to this small country church called St. Mary Mother of Mercy. The candle flames in the sanctuary fill the absolute quiet with gently rolling greyish shadows. No sounds intrude from outside, not even from the five-lane highway that runs past the front door. There is no rush hour to speak of in this Florida town of Macclenny.
Its population of barely 3,900 is nestled just three miles from the Georgia border in a county that has less than a dozen traffic lights—most of them flashers. My experience in this ministry tells me that the sounds that will break the silence this evening will be the cries of agony and the gut-wrenching sobs of grief and loss that can come only from a bereft mother. A metallic knock on the frame of the church’s front door announces the family’s arrival. It is time for one such mother’s personal experience of La Pietà.
As I greet the mother, her adult children, and extended family, I am relieved that we have already spent much time together this week. The walk from the church vestibule to the front pew feels like a family processing behind the casket at a funeral: labored, hesitant, uneven. Her youngest son and son-in-law are on each side, escorting her by the arm to steady her steps. The parish priest, always gentle and exactly on time, has quietly slipped to the front where he awaits the family with prayer and a solemn supportive hug for each one. He is not yet vested. The Mass in Celebration of Life is not yet certain to occur. This mother’s eldest son is not yet dead. He is strapped down and prepped to be killed, but there is still time.
The Agony of Not Knowing. As the family files into the two front pews, they face twenty-five minutes of uncertainty, an invisible cloud as grey and undefined as the darkening shadows cast around them by the sanctuary candles. Will there be a phone call announcing a stay of execution? Does this mother pray for a miracle? Or does she pray for consolation? No one knows.
My husband, Dale, is with her son, thirty miles away, at the execution chamber in Florida’s death house. Dale is serving as her son’s spiritual advisor. If there is a last-minute stay, Dale’s will be the voice of hope penetrating the silence on the priest’s cell phone. If there is not a stay, Dale’s will be the face of love that her son can focus on as he dies. Will there be a call before the deadline saying her son will not be killed tonight? Or will Dale call in an hour and say, “It is finished”? A part of the agony is not knowing.
My place is in a pew several rows behind the family, far enough removed to allow them their private grief, close enough to be a tangible support in prayer and presence. I have been here before and will be here again. This is the time when I find my gaze locking on the gentle but victorious eyes of Mary Queen of Heaven, depicted in the three-story-high stained-glass window behind the altar. Her foot is crushing the head of the serpent. Her arms are outstretched to us in welcome. Her mantle is mercy.
I believe that Jesus, who was himself executed, knows exactly what this mother’s son is going through tonight as he lies stretched out and fastened to a gurney in front of witnesses who are eager for his death. And I know that our Blessed Mother Mary knows exactly what this mother is enduring as she stands vigil for her son’s execution. My words are more in my head than on my lips:
Mary, Mother of Mercy, pray for us. Mary, Queen of Heaven, intercede for us.
An Anguishing Image. I had never planned on becoming involved in ministry to the families of those being executed and to the families of murder victims. But the Lord often takes us to places we had not planned on when we let him lead us. That is also a reality that Mary understands.
It may be slightly uncomfortable to imagine Mary’s shock at arriving in Bethlehem, homeless and pregnant with our Savior. It is certainly disquieting to picture her crossing the desert into Egypt with Joseph and her infant son, fleeing the homicidal rage of King Herod. But as difficult as those pictures may be for us, it is infinitely more difficult to conjure the image of Mary standing at the foot of the cross as her son endures a brutal, state-sanctioned execution. Who can fathom her anguish as she receives his dead body into her arms? Who can withstand the horror of the Pietà?
At this very moment, there is a room full of people methodically completing the final steps to kill her son. I do not look at my watch. There is no need to look at any clock. Even though our little parish does not have a bell tower, there is a large one at the Protestant church across the road. The bells chime long and loud on the hour. I know. The priest knows. This mother knows. We all know that if no phone call has come from Dale before six o’clock, the bells’ ringing will mark the moment that the state pushes the button to release the poison that will end her son’s life.
Mary, Mother in Mourning, pray for us, and hold this mother close to your heart.
A Shared Pain. I had never dreamed that I would find myself sitting with a mother in her living room shortly after her son had been murdered in a parking lot. I had also never imagined that I would find myself sitting with another mother in church at the very moment her son was being executed. And I had not been prepared to learn that the grief of these two mothers is so similar. Just a few hours before, each mother had hugged her son good-bye. In one case, the son was going to work. In the other, the son was locked in a cell. Each of the sons had been healthy. And then each son was dead. Each son had been killed on purpose, killed by another person. The pain and grief on the face of these two mothers was the same.
Now, in this church, the quiet seems to last forever, unbroken by that hoped-for telephone call. While the last remaining seconds of the condemned man’s life tick so quickly away, while I kneel in prayer and reflect on these experiences, the ever-present memory of the Pietà fills my mind. On my first visit to St. Peter’s Basilica, I was taken completely by surprise as I stood before Michelangelo’s masterpiece of human agony. One could hardly be prepared for the spiritual impact of witnessing Mary’s intense suffering breathed so lifelike into stone. It seemed as real as if it were happening now.
The exquisite folds and textures fashioned in stone somehow capture the depth of Mary’s suffering in the moment when she held Jesus after his body had been taken down from the cross. The pain on Mary’s face, looking down on her son’s wracked body after his execution, was larger than life. I was stunned by the stark contrast between his lifeless body at this moment and the depictions of his dynamic life from just the night before at the Last Supper.
At the time in my life when I first experienced the Pietà, I had never been involved with mothers whose sons had been killed, legally or illegally. Now, as I kneel in this darkening church, praying for this mother and her family, praying for the ring of a cell phone before the tolling of the bells, I know that my first viewing was a long time ago. Now, when I see the Pietà, when I see in it Mary’s loss, grief, and agony, I know that I have seen this pain before.
Sharing in the Grief. My interior thoughts are suddenly shattered by the booming toll of the bells from the church across the street. It is six o’clock. There has been no phone call. I step forward to the space immediately behind this mother whose son is being killed right now. My hand is on her shoulder in prayer as her body trembles with pain and sobs.
Although I cannot see her face from behind, I know the pain it bears. I have seen it before. I also know by faith that the agony of La Pietà is not the end of the story. There is a resurrection that promises healing and redemption. I believe that Mary also hoped in this promise, and she saw it through to fulfillment.
Holy Mary, grasping the body of our executed Savior in your arms, pray for us, now and at the hour of our death.
Susan Recinella, a member of I Was in Prison ministry, serves as a Catholic lay minister to families of the executed. See the website at www.iwasinprison.org.