(RNS) — Dale Recinella, a Catholic lay chaplain on Florida’s death row, was awarded the first-ever Guardian of Life Award from the Pontifical Academy of Life on Tuesday (Sept. 28). Recinella, the first-ever recipient of the new award, accepted the honor at the academy’s general assembly in Rome.
For more than two decades, Recinella had been offering pastoral care and religious education to inmates in solitary confinement at Florida State Prison in Raiford, near Jacksonville, which houses the second-largest death row population in the United States.
He also provided deathwatch ministry to those awaiting scheduled executions. This work included spiritual preparations on the day of execution, accompanying inmates to their final goodbye with loved ones, presence at execution and pastoral care for the family post-execution.
During his acceptance speech, Recinella said he and his wife have many “baptismal godchildren” on death row. He said that he asks the men why they want to become Catholic, and they say, “because that’s the church that wants me.”
Recinella, 69, told Catholic News Service that he considers himself semi-retired and has already ceded his role as death row chaplain in Raiford to a former NFL linebacker, which he said the inmates are very excited about. Catholic leaders in Florida, he added, are actively trying to find others to pursue prison ministry as a profession.
Before his work as a death row chaplain, Recinella was a corporate and finance lawyer. He holds a J.D. from Notre Dame University Law School and a master of theological studies from Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology.
The Pontifical Academy for Life is the Vatican’s school for promoting a consistent life ethic that opposes abortion, capital punishment and assisted suicide. According to the academy, the Guardian of Life Award is intended for those who have “distinguished themselves in their private and professional lives for significant actions in support of the protection and promotion of human life.”
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said that while Recinella’s choice to serve as death row chaplain was not easy, “it was essential to bring comfort to those who were violently torn from this world.”
The Catholic Church has not supported the use of the death penalty except in rare cases since 1995, when Pope John Paul II addressed capital punishment in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae. In a meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization in 2017, Pope Francis said, “The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
Recinella said the award is a statement by the Catholic Church on the importance of the lives of the men and women on death row around the world.