August 14, 2020

Reflection / Natalie Hoefer

Executed Catholic’s story of conversion offers hope in redemption

Natalie HoeferNews about the federal execution of Catholic convert Dustin Lee Honken ended on July 17 when he died by lethal injection at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute.

But there is one more part to the story yet to be told, I believe.

In fact, belief has everything to do with it. Because I see in Honken a modern-day Dismas, a criminal whose example of humble contrition offers the hope of redemption for anyone.

Even for those who break the Fifth Commandment five times.

Honken was raised in a small Iowa town. A July 12 article in the Des Moines Register reveals a bit about his past, using his sister’s testimony at his murder trial.

His father was an alcoholic with “powerful sway” over Honken and his siblings. The man led his teenage son into a life of crime by convincing him to steal and make a copy of a bank key—a bank the father then robbed.

Honken was already a drug dealer when he started community college in 1991 at age 23. He quit after one year and became a methamphetamine “kingpin,” making the drug in Arizona and trafficking it across state lines.

He was caught in 1993 and charged in federal court. While out on bail awaiting his final hearing that summer, two witness against him were murdered—along with one’s girlfriend and her two children. Honken was later convicted of the murders and sentenced to death.

From there, all we know of his conversion to Catholicism is that it happened in prison.

But we do have testimony of Honken’s conversion of heart.

The same article providing information on his past also quoted the words of Honken himself from “since-removed blogs chronicling Death Row inmates’ lives.” There, the inmate wrote that he regretted his “every single transgression.”

“When those people finally get around to killing me,” he continued, “they’ll realize only the shell of me remains, the heart of me died long ago.”

Honken said his heart “died.” Others saw instead a heart reborn.

Our former archbishop, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, wrote to President Donald J. Trump:

“I have known Mr. Honken for seven years. [From] 2012-17 I visited him … 4-5 times each year. ... His present spiritual guide, Father Mark O’Keefe, O.S.B., confirms that the spiritual growth in faith and compassion, which I witnessed in our meetings some years ago, continues to this day.”

And there is also the statement from Honken’s lawyer, Shawn Nolan, following the execution:

“Dustin Honken was redeemed. He recognized and repented for the crimes he had committed, and spent his time in prison atoning for them. With Father Mark, Sister Betty, Cardinal Tobin and other religious mentors, Dustin worked every day at the Catholic faith that was at the center of his life.

“During his time in prison, he cared for everyone he came into contact with: guards, counselors, medical staff, his fellow inmates and his legal team. Over the years, he grew incredibly close to his family, becoming a true father, son, brother and friend.”

Those are convincing words from some highly credible witnesses of Honken’s transformation.

But perhaps the most powerful proof of Honken’s conversion lies in his choice to read “Heaven-Haven,” a poem by19th-century poet Jesuit Father Gerard Hopkins, as his final statement:

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

The humility Honken exemplified in his journey of conversion is profound: first to admit sin, then to repent through action, and finally to ask for a place in heaven despite his sinful past.

But he was not the first criminal to do so. He had an example to turn to, and a promise in which to place his trust:

“But the other [criminal] rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’ ” (Lk 23:40-43).

The last words to pass from Honken’s lips were an humble prayer: “Hail Mary, Mother of God, pray for me.”

I wish I knew the full story of Honken’s conversion. But truthfully, I think God has let made known all that needs to be known for Honken to serve as a modern-day hope-giving example, and an affirmation of these truths:

That no matter how far one has traveled down the wrong path, conversion is absolutely possible.

And that no matter how wicked the sin, no matter how unforgivable one feels, God will redeem a contrite soul.

And then he will love it to new life.

(Natalie Hoefer is a reporter for The Criterion.)

Local site Links: