At a business lunch in 1988, Dale S. Recinella ate a raw oyster tainted with flesh-eating bacteria and spent the next four weeks violently ill. When his organs shut down, the doctor, who could not figure out what was wrong, told him, “You will not see morning.”
His loved ones said goodbye, and the last thing he remembered was kissing his wife, Susan, who kept a bedside death watch through the night.
But a light came into that darkness, Recinella later said, when he found himself standing before a weeping Jesus.
“Dale,” Jesus said, stretching out his arms, “what have you done with my gifts?”
Recinella defended himself with a litany of his ambitious achievements, then realized that his personal life “was a mess” and was filled with “ego, selfishness, narcissism and a false sense of importance.”
He promised Jesus that he would live differently if he got another chance.
“I’m not dead, am I?” Recinella asked Susan when he woke at 6:30 a.m. with no fever and no bacterial infection eating his body.
“It was gone,” he told Our Sunday Visitor.
The doctor said that his recovery was “truly impossible,” but the medical proof, Recinella said, is simple: “I’m here.”
Recinella, once a high-powered and affluent finance lawyer, turned his life around to answer Christ’s call to sell everything he owned and to follow him — no matter what the cost.
In a long transition that spanned his recovery, making plans, hitting dead ends and navigating turns in the road of their new journey, Recinella and his wife began a radical quest “to live the words of Jesus.” It took them from their upscale neighborhood to humble housing, and it took him from the fast-paced world of Wall Street to the stark cells of a Florida prison. He tells his story in a new book, “Now I Walk on Death Row: A Wall Street Finance Lawyer Stumbles into the Arms of A Loving God” (Chosen, $14.99).
For 13 years, Recinella, 59, has served as lay chaplain for inmates on death row and in solitary confinement, and his wife is a psychologist at a mental health facility. They have five grown children — Adelaide, Christopher, Jeanette, Christina and Anthony — and live in Macclenny, Fla.
Our Sunday Visitor: Did you have any doubts about your calling to live the Gospel in such a radical way?
Dale Recinella: We didn’t have doubts that it was the right step, and most of the time we could see that it was a step into greater freedom for us. But frequently it didn’t make sense to everything we had learned as two upwardly mobile professionals. So the doubts were not faith doubts and they weren’t doubts as to what God was calling us to do. The doubts were more like, “You gotta be kidding. You want me to go to prison?”
OSV: Why you?
Recinella: I think God knows each of us better than we know ourselves. I would have never picked this, but clearly he has matched the need with my particular skills and experience. One of the questions I am frequently asked as pastoral adviser to men on death row is, “Do you really believe there is life after death?” And I can look them right in the eye and say, “I know there is life after death, and let me tell you why I know that.”
OSV: What kind of people do you meet on death row?
Recinella: We have 400 men on death row in Florida, the second-largest death row in the country. So, just as in any group of 400, you have a bell curve of life experiences, and spiritual and religious experiences. I have encountered men who had horrendous abandonment, horrendous physical and emotional abuse, and sometimes were even suicidal in their childhood.
The mentally ill and [mentally disabled] are very much overrepresented on death row, four or five times their presence in the population at large.
OSV: Why is that?
Recinella: In researching my scholarly book (“The Biblical Truth About America’s Death Penalty,” Northeastern University Press, $27.95) I learned that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when funding for mental health hospitals was reduced, funding for community services never increased. The prison systems have become mental health catch-alls by default.
The Florida Department of Corrections has estimated that at least 10 percent of their adult inmates are diagnosed as severely mentally ill. Some 86 percent of all executions in the last 34 years have been in the Bible Belt, in the states with the lowest per capita spending for mental health services. Families are trying to get treatment for their [mentally ill] loved ones and then are trying to keep them from being executed, and they usually lose both fights. There was a four-year time period where I was on death watch for 12 executions, and seven of those 12 were severely mentally ill.
OSV: Have you ever met anyone you would describe as evil?
Recinella: I can’t say that I met someone who is evil. I have met inmates who have done very, very evil things, but our Church has taught me that everyone is susceptible to redemption.
So, I look for the open ground for the toehold, and then try to work from there. I don’t think our Church believes there is anyone who would be pure evil. That would constitute double predestination, predestination to hell, which is contrary to Catholic beliefs. Everyone is able to be redeemed by the cross, which is pure love.
OSV: You say that, because of professional ethics, you can’t be on both sides of the capital punishment cases. But you can minister to families of murder victims in non-capital cases. What about them?
Recinella: It’s not easy, and sometimes it makes you feel ripped in half to see the agony of the family. Sometimes it’s easier to stand on one side or the other, but that’s not our calling. Ours is to stand in the gap of these horrible crimes in our society and to minister to both sides.
There’s a third side — the staff at the prisons. It’s not unusual that after an execution, I’ll spend as much time ministering to prison staff as I did ministering to the condemned and his family. Prison wardens across the country are finally speaking out about what executions do to their staff. We are not made to kill healthy human beings and feel good about it. God did not make us that way.
OSV: What can we do for these families?
Recinella: I encourage everyone to find a way to reach out to the families of crime victims and to be a community for them. They feel as isolated as the families of the perpetrators. People stay away and so they are lonely in their suffering and grief. They are in our parishes. Their kids go to school with our kids, and they work across the hall from us. They never say anything because they don’t want people to stay away.
OSV: What are your worst experiences in your ministry?
Recinella: The executions are always difficult, especially the one of a man that I believed was innocent. It took me a long time to recover from that emotionally. And also a botched execution was absolutely the most difficult thing I have experienced in these 13 years. To watch him writhe on the gurney for half an hour, in agonizing pain, was beyond words.
OSV: And the greatest moments of your ministry?
Recinella: The realization that God called my wife and our children. Our journey is the journey of a couple and of a family. It’s a call within a call.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania. For more information on Recinella, visit www.iwasinprison.org/.
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