I’ve been on death row for 23 years. Catholic Mass gives me hope in the midst of my suffering.
Catholic Mass on North Carolina’s death row was often an oasis in the desolation of my confinement. None who attended were especially pious or reverent. Washing hands prior to service, not cursing in front of the priest and participating at all the appropriate moments proved challenging enough. Then there was the singing. I generally like to sing and did my best to stay in tune, but most of the guys spoke or mumbled hymns through gritted teeth, as if the act of making a joyful noise in prison was painful. Sometimes it is.
When I arrived on death row in 1999 and began attending Mass, there were eight of us: me, Angel, Elias, Eric, Jeff, Mule, Pat and Terry. We were a small group of Catholics in a prison dominated by Protestant Christians and Muslims. For decades, the Protestant chaplains refused to acknowledge Catholicism or provide services to anyone claiming the faith. When Angel got to death row in 1996, upon discovering the anti-Catholic sentiment, he wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II and expressed his desire to practice Catholicism, receive Communion and give his confession to a priest.
Angel never received a direct response from the Vatican, but several months later the prison chaplain grudgingly announced that priests from the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh would begin conducting Mass for us.
Seated at steel tables in the dayroom of the church block, so designated because all religious services were held there, we sang, read and discussed Scripture.
We met on Thursday afternoons for roughly an hour. Seated at steel tables in the dayroom of the church block, so designated because all religious services were held there, we sang, read and discussed Scripture. We received the Holy Eucharist and tried to develop our faith in God.
I was not new to Catholicism. My siblings and I had all been altar servers at two Catholic parishes in Maine. Mom taught Sunday school classes for children. She had strong opinions about other parishioners and, for a while, pushed back against what she saw as the falsity of their faith, but the seeming hypocrisy grew to be too much. She tried other churches in the area; none seemed to fit. Ultimately, we stopped attending because she did. Given the chance to opt out, as children we chose the free Sunday.
Jeff came from a background similar to mine—white middle class—and his parents had attended St. Francis of Assisi Church since the time it was founded in Raleigh. Jeff and Eric, a Costa Rican immigrant who was a Vietnam veteran and former Army captain, were the only members to have received the sacrament of confirmation prior to their incarceration. Our consistent attendance at Mass prompted Father Dan to offer Angel, Pat, Terry, Elias, Henry and me a chance to be confirmed. We all accepted.
At first, I attended Mass on death row to escape the noise and cigarette smoke on my block, where people shouted to be heard over the television, slammed dominoes on tables, squabbled, laughed, cursed and made thinking impossible in the crowded space. Not that many people at the prison wanted us to think. Not the guards who carried out executions. Not the doctors who participated and liberally prescribed opioids and toxic levels of psych meds. Not the nurses who gave out extra pills. And certainly not us.
Catholic Mass became a respite in the way an A.A. meeting in a church basement sobered some alcoholics.
Catholic Mass became a respite in the way an A.A. meeting in a church basement sobered some alcoholics. The priests mainly cared that we kept coming back and were respectful, knowing we had little time and not wanting to drive anyone away. It did not matter that Pat grinned and made faces while we sang, or that Terry was so heavily medicated he mistook pop psychology for Scripture (“God helps those who help themselves”), or that Eric was ready to argue with everyone. Father Dan and Father Mark were patient. They politely corrected misunderstandings and answered (most of the time) obnoxious questions, even though we knew better. No, Catholics don’t worship Mary, they venerate her. Saints are not ghosts and the Holy Spirit is not a saint or a ghost. Yes, even the people Mule called “heathens” could enter heaven by the grace of God.
We sat in a horseshoe around two tables with the priest at the top, me on his left, then Elias, Angel, Jeff, Pat, Terry, Mule and Eric. Father Dan gave the six of us who wanted to be confirmed a study guide and a book about choosing Catholicism as adults. Mule (he was called “Henry” only at Mass; even guards called him Mule) and I lived on the same cell block and studied together when there was a lull in the noise and when we were not high, neither of which was often. My questions continued, some of them earnest and genuine; others would have embarrassed my mother. Jeff jumped in on the more philosophical discussions with the priests, ready to argue a secular or scientific point. Angel largely said nothing, only interjecting if some historical fact was in dispute. Sometimes we directed questions at each other, shared bits about our background in the church, and got off topic, but the priests gently brought us back.
“Okay guys. Let’s profess our faith.”
Elias did not try to justify his actions, expressing only remorse and sorrow for his children, for whom he prayed at every Mass.
Though I went to Mass as a refuge from jail life, I remained defiant and angry inside. Faith in God was a question in my mind that would not be easily answered. I think Elias, an older man, saw this in me. During our discussions he mostly listened, sometimes commenting but always attentive. One day, after seeing me make the Sign of the Cross with my left hand, he pulled me aside after Mass.
“Lyle,” he said, his Jordanian roots heavily accenting his English, “Why you make the Sign of the Cross with left hand? This is bad. You should make it with the right.” He demonstrated until I nodded. “Good. You seem a nice boy.” Elias patted me on the shoulder, stern but pleasant.
I was one of the youngest people on death row at the time, turning 21 a month before being sentenced to death. This meant I got called “boy” a lot, especially by the older guys from the South. Elias acknowledged my youth, but was not disrespectful, just kind.
Elias was generally quiet and unobtrusive. A machinist in the Jordanian Army before immigrating to the United States, he had a knack for finessing the few items we could possess. Elias would, for example, sharpen a disposable razor purchased from the canteen for 15 cents. Where I might use one a few times and throw it away, he re-used a disposable razor for months. Elias had a pair of black dress shoes he polished every day, only wearing them to Mass or when he had visitors. When the bottoms wore out, he re-soled them with cutouts from a plastic-rubber trash can. After the prison banned personal shoes and he had to send them to a friend, Elias was disgusted.
Bishop Gossman greeted us like long lost sons, not grown men on death row.
“Why do they do this? These people—they have no mercy. Praise God I have learned better.”
Elias was convicted and sentenced to death for killing his wife in the midst of a bitter argument over her cheating. He pleaded guilty, but the district attorney charged him with first-degree murder, which, in North Carolina, until 2001, mandated a capital trial. Elias did not know this when he pleaded guilty. But the district attorney knew it. So did Elias’s attorney; but there was no offer of second-degree murder. Elias did not try to justify his actions, expressing only remorse and sorrow for his children, for whom he prayed at every Mass.
After 12 weeks of study, Elias, Pat, Terry, Mule, Angel and I received the sacrament of confirmation, the rite that sealed our entrance into the Catholic faith as adults. Bishop F. Joseph Gossman presided, wearing heavy, burgundy vestments and carrying an oak staff curled at the top like an unfurled fern. He greeted us like long lost sons, not grown men on death row. Father Dan and Father Mark served the bishop, one lighting incense in a brass censer while the other held a book containing the rite’s liturgy, prayers and vows.
We were allowed use of a small conference room for the occasion, barely big enough to contain eight death-row prisoners, two priests, the bishop and chaplain and a guard. It was nice to have a little privacy for what was a special moment in a place devoid of them. Elias looked harried and nervous. Pat cracked jokes about the bishop’s garb and asked to borrow his staff. Terry talked quietly with Eric while struggling to stay awake. Mule and I stood in a corner watching everything get set up, laughing at Terry when he fell asleep as Eric talked about the military. Jeff and Angel watched the priests and spoke to each other in Spanish.
Pursuing faith in God while elected leaders and the courts invoked the same God to kill us was difficult at first. It is like digging into rocky soil looking for a place to plant a seed and finding more rock.
Pursuing faith in God while elected leaders and the courts invoked the same God to kill us—“eye for eye, tooth for tooth”—was difficult at first. It is like digging into rocky soil looking for a place to plant a seed and finding more rock. Then the shovel breaks and it refuses to rain. Part of the effort is desperation, a need that folds the body around it until ordinary thought becomes impossible.
Some people mock prisoners who experience come-to-Jesus moments, claiming it is a pretense—anything to save one’s neck and gain compassion from a secular world. Maybe there are a handful of people who mistakenly believe that works. They are usually the same people who learn about prison from TV shows and films. I returned to my Catholic upbringing, professing a faith I did not completely feel, because I was suffering and needed answers from God. Why have you allowed me to suffer? Why did you abandon me?
As a child, when I was an altar server, the priests often sent me on errands that required crossing before the altar. A giant crucifix hung suspended from the ceiling and every time, no matter how much of a hurry I was in or whether or not the church was empty, I genuflected and made the Sign of the Cross with my right hand. If I forgot, my feet stopped of their own accord and brought me back to kneel. This ingrained obedience and reverence to a God who often seemed absent had waned over time, but enough remained to continue seeking him out. I knew no quick answers would be forthcoming, but at least I was not alone. Others searched for the same reason, digging in the rocky ground of our lives even when it seemed impenetrable. Elias, Mule, Terry, Pat, Angel and I, in receiving the sacrament of confirmation as adults, affirmed our dedication to that struggle.
Sometimes reality cuts so deeply and savagely you feel the cold numbness of loss before any blood appears.
The lessons taught to us by the priests were simple. Love one another. Love God. Forgive one another. Read the Word of God. Repeat. How we interpreted that in our daily lives varied: I listened, Pat laughed, Terry and Eric reminisced; Angel dispensed kindness, Jeff charity, Mule devotion, and Elias compassion. Together we prayed, learned and shared our strengths while connecting at Mass and beyond.
Sometimes reality cuts so deeply and savagely you feel the cold numbness of loss before any blood appears. It was like this the day of an execution. First, the executioner’s meal appeared behind the large windows of a locked office. Two long tables laden with food for a picnic—several two-liter bottles of soda, large bags of chips, dips, cold cuts, cookies, paper plates, Solo cups, plastic utensils and a colorfully frosted sheet cake. Death row prisoners filed by the display on the way to and back from the chow hall. Staff claimed all that food was snacks for guards serving the execution shift, but sheet cake is a strange snack unless you are the executioner celebrating a job well done. I had already witnessed over a dozen such celebratory meals and knew enough to mentally prepare for what was to come.
Mule was put to death Sept. 13, 2003.
The hardest discussions at Mass were the ones that never took place. After Mule’s execution, Father Dan’s homily was short and fell into a bottomless silence. None of us wanted to be there, and nothing was said for several minutes. Being confirmed did not alter our despair nor make it less necessary to keep grief on a tight leash. More executions were scheduled for the year. In some ways it was easier to embrace fatalism, the inevitability of death. It made talking about an execution a frivolous exercise for the living. We were already dead.
“They have no mercy. They kill us—young, old, black, white, sick, healthy—then call it justice. Prison is enough, but still they kill us. Where is the church, Father?”
Finally, Elias spoke. “Father, you know, it’s hard to live in this place. They have no mercy. They kill us—young, old, black, white, sick, healthy—then call it justice. Prison is enough, but still they kill us. Where is the church, Father?”
It may have been the hardest question any of us asked. Father Dan attempted to explain the disconnect between Vatican teaching and America’s love affair with capital punishment. That devout Catholics could be totally against abortion, contraception and embryonic stem cell treatment, yet support the death penalty was baffling. I felt that the U.S. bishops were too quiet on the matter, appearing more like bureaucrats than disciples of Jesus Christ. In the early 2000s, the loudest and most consistent voice cutting through Catholic hypocrisy and calling for the right-to-life from conception to natural death was not the pope, cardinals or bishops, but a nun from Louisiana. Sister Helen Prejean’s advocacy for the men and women on death row forced anyone who kneels before the cross to answer a question: Can you really be a Christian, a follower of the Son of God, and support the death of your neighbor?
The governor would have to answer this question when Elias received his execution date in 2005: Nov. 18.
After the service we each gave Elias a hug and said our goodbyes.
At his final Mass with us, before being taken to death watch for the final 72 hours of his life, Elias received the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. When it came time to say prayers and intentions, my friend prayed for his children and asked for mercy, as he always had. Then he spoke to us: “Thank you, brothers, for being with me. For accepting me. Peace be with all of you and your families.” After the service we each gave Elias a hug and said our goodbyes.
I was naïvely hopeful that then-Governor Michael Easley would commute Elias’s sentence. There was reason to believe he might, since Elias’s adult children, who were also the children of the woman he killed, advocated for clemency. They met with the governor and begged him to spare their father, saying they did not want to lose another parent to the same murder.
Elias’s children also spoke with the local media, again pleading with the governor to show mercy. They pleaded with the district attorney who prosecuted Elias, rightly arguing that as victims of the crime, they should have a say in the punishment. Absent from their public pleas was any support from a victims’ rights group, which would have bolstered their cause.
Elias Syriani was put to death on Nov. 18, 2005.
Pat had a fairly insouciant attitude about executions, including his own. “There’s no need to get worked up over it. It’s gonna happen whether I want it or not.” Before he left for death watch, and after his final Mass with us, Pat cracked jokes about going to see the big leprechaun in the sky. “I’m part Irish and they’re executing me on St. Patrick’s Day—that has to count for something.”
Patrick Moody was put to death on March 17, 2006.
Celebrating the Last Supper often feels like a distant flourish of faith passed down over 2,000 years. Connecting to its true meaning is a tenuous act made even more difficult by faulty institutions and flawed human beings.
Celebrating the Last Supper often feels like a distant flourish of faith passed down over 2,000 years. Connecting to its true meaning is a tenuous act made even more difficult by faulty institutions and flawed human beings. Early in my faith journey I thought the answers to my questions lay beyond my reach. But then I grew up on death row. In less than seven years, I lived while 33 human beings, some of whom were friends and brothers, were exterminated. It changed how I understood life and death, a terrible knowledge that drew me closer to God. Slowly, I have come to realize we were never abandoned. The answer had been there all along in the eucharistic prayer:
For on the night he was betrayed
he himself took bread,
and, giving you thanks, he said the blessing,
broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying:
Take this, all of you, and eat of it,
for this is my body,
which will be given up for you.
In a similar way, when supper was ended,
he took the chalice,
and, giving you thanks, he said the blessing,
and gave the chalice to his disciples, saying:
Take this, all of you, and drink from it,
for this is the chalice of my blood,
the blood of the new and eternal covenant,
which will be poured out for you and for many
for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this in memory of me.
When I was a kid, as an altar server I had to watch the priest during this prayer. As he raised the bread, then the wine, my task was to ring a set of brass bells. “Ring them as hard as you can,” one priest told me. “Make sure everyone hears them.” Many years later on death row, sitting at a table and watching the priest perform this rite, I still knew the exact moment at which the bells rang. The clangor crashed into the bottomless silence, banishing despair and defeating death if only we believed. That sound was not just an answer to our suffering, but an end to it. Clear in its reminder. Absolute in its purity. Certain in the promise of eternal life.