Who does God want to be saved? A story from death row

By Dale Recinella, 27 February 2022
Image: Vatican News.


Dale Recinella, the former Wall Street finance lawyer who assists prisoners on death row in Florida together with his wife Susan, shares his experience and tells the stories of those he meets.

Several years ago, an infamous criminal on Florida’s death row requests to begin meeting with me pastorally. I am almost paralyzed at the thought. Surely, this requires someone with much more training, much more experience, much more something, much more everything.

Surely, God would not ask me to see a man pastorally when just the thought of his crimes, just the thought of holding his hands in prayer, those very same hands that did those unspeakable things to peoples’ loved ones, moves me to a nauseating horror and revulsion.

All the crimes represented by death row are horrible. All the crimes are revolting. But these particular crimes were the stuff of my worst nightmares. Surely, I was not the guy to do this. I sought out spiritual counseling for me from a priest in the diocese. My deepest hope was that the elderly priest would see my distress and take pity on me — that he would tell me to let someone else deal with the horror this man had unleashed on innocent victims the same ages as my own children.

“I don’t think you get to pick, Dale.” He shakes his head sadly. This once young priest, now almost as grey in the hair as I have become seemingly overnight since starting death row ministry, is my pastoral advisor. “I don’t think you get to decide who God can ask you to serve.”

“But there has to be a limit, a boundary, something that even God can’t ask me to go beyond.”

“Well, there isn’t in this regard, not when it comes to bringing His good news to the people who need it most. Can you think of anybody who needs the good news of Jesus Christ more than this fellow?”

“No. Of course not. But why me?”

“We don’t get to ask that question. Jesus eradicated that question for all time when He went to the Cross willingly and said, ‘Not my will, but Thy will.’”

“If anyone had the right to scream, ‘Why me?’ it was Jesus the Son of God. But He didn’t. And so, we don’t get to ask that either. The reason He is sending you is because this man asked for you. If you refuse, you are not just saying ‘no’ to the condemned inmate; you are saying ‘no’ to Christ.”

“Well, it’s a little late for that, don’t you think?” I feel sheepish at how sarcastic my tone is, but in fact, it does feel like God is taking me a lot deeper than I ever intended to go.

“In fact it is far too late for that.” The priest places his hand so gently on my shoulder that he feels like a father speaking to his teenage son. “I think you said ‘yes’ to this a long time ago, but you didn’t know it yet. You said ‘yes’ when you were baptized and confirmed. You say ‘yes’ every time you receive the Eucharist. Now, you are finding out what that ‘yes’ means.”

By the conclusion of my first pastoral appointment with the infamous inmate, word has gone through the entire death row building. Not just the inmates, but also the staff are somewhat shocked that I would entertain the possibility that such a man, an infamous serial killer of young men and women, is capable of God’s forgiveness and redemption. How quickly we forget that none of us are capable. It is God and only God who is capable.

As I clear the security checkpoint to exit the death row building, I notice that two officers are standing between me and the entrance to the quarter-mile-long fence tunnel that leads from death row to the front of the prison. I greet the two officers because I know them well and they have always treated me well.

They do not return my greeting. As I step within arm’s reach of them, they do not budge an inch. I realize they are not here to make sure I am able to leave. In fact, they are here to block my path.

“You are way off track on this one, chap.” The younger officer who towers over me speaks with arms rigidly folded while expertly aiming his tobacco-stained spit just a centimeter from my shoe. I know instinctively that his marksmanship with the spent tobacco juice is not a threat but is meant for emphasis.

“We usually support your work in this building.” The older, shorter officer takes up his portion of the presentation. “You know we are supportive of your efforts. But this one is a mistake. God wants this one in hell.”

In the moment’s pause before responding, I pray to the Holy Spirit to give me the words. I know that both these men are strong biblical Christians. That is what we have in common, that and our horror at the crimes done to other peoples’ loved ones.

“I hear you.” My hands are raised, palms out, in a gesture of surrender. “But I do not have a choice.”

“Sure you do,” snaps the younger officer. “Nobody is making you see him.”

“Actually, that is not really true. Jesus doesn’t give me a choice. Jesus says he leaves the ninety-nine righteous in the desert and goes out seeking to save the one who went astray.”

“I never read that in the Bible!” The younger officer stiffens with resolve, but I look squarely at the older officer who I know is a deacon in his church.

“Yeah …” he shakes his head disgustedly and drops his arms to his side. “Yeah … it’s in there. I’ve read it.”

“I do not have a choice, sir.” I am speaking softer now to two officers who themselves are feeling dejected and burdened by the weight of the Gospel’s demands. “If I come here as a minister of the Gospel, I have to be willing to go after the sheep Jesus would go after. And Jesus would go after him.”

No more words are exchanged. The two officers, crestfallen with heads shaking, simply step away, leaving my path unobstructed from the gate to the outside.

For over a year, that inmate and I meet every month on death row for pastoral counseling. It never gets easy or casual. But God, in His infinite mercy to my brokenness, allows me to know with absolute clarity that this man can be forgiven and can someday see heaven.

This God, who is mercy, within mercy, within mercy, refuses to let me limit His saving work to the people that I can imagine in heaven. God imagines everyone in heaven.

God’s greatest desire is that no one chooses hell.

With thanks to Vatican Newsand Dale Recinella, where this article originally appeared.


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