THE FINAL WORDS of Sister Helen Prejean’s new book River of Fire are the first lines of her most famous book, Dead Man Walking. But it is a different Prejean we meet in the River pages: Not the heroic anti-death penalty activist we hear on the news, but a young Louisiana woman on fire for God.
Raised in a loving Catholic family, Prejean entered the novitiate in the strict 1950s. Her descriptions of almost military-like training—no friendships allowed, eyes modestly downcast, sinners wearing vices written on cards around their necks—made me grateful I never became a nun. Once Prejean took her final vows, however, she only had a few years to adjust to the restrictive life before the Catholic Church experienced the seismic shift of the Second Vatican Council.
Prejean makes this transformative time come alive, even relaying how two men almost came to blows over the changes at a parish discussion group she facilitated. Vatican II meant no more Latin Mass or memorization of the catechism. Catholics were now expected to be truly educated about their faith and motivated more by love than fear.