In 1858 Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette near the town of Lourdes in southern France, and in the years that followed, many miraculous cures occurred at the shrine created there. Toward the end of the 19th century a famous French novelist named Emile Zola decided to visit Lourdes—but not in a spirit of faith. As an atheist and a member of the Freemasons, he was convinced miracles were impossible, and he wanted to write a book exposing, in his words, “the great deceit permitted by the Catholic clergy at Lourdes.” While there Zola personally witnessed the healing of two women dying from tuberculosis—but instead of changing his outlook, in his book he denied this had happened, and even claimed the women died after returning from their pilgrimage. When Zola then realized someone could easily track them down and discredit his book, he actually went and persuaded them to move to Belgium so his lie wouldn’t be uncovered.
God, of course, always has the last word. Zola had wanted to help shut down the shrine at Lourdes, but his vicious denunciations actually caused more pilgrims to visit there, including one of his own friends, another atheist; this man was converted and became a Catholic. Another famous atheist and future Nobel prize winner in the field of medicine, Dr. Alexis Carrel, also visited Lourdes with the idea of discrediting it—but when he saw the miraculous healing of one of his own dying patients, he too, unlike Emile Zola, converted. This cost him his teaching position at the University of Lyons, where atheism ruled the day; Dr. Carrel was forced to leave for New York City, but he didn’t mind—for he realized that his newfound Catholic faith was worth any sacrifice.
Faith is a great gift, and because it can lead to eternal life, it’s always worth the price of holding onto it—but that doesn’t mean everyone is willing to accept this gift. Many people suffer from honest or sincere doubts, and God is all right with that, for He is infinitely kind and merciful. However, Jesus is unable to bless or save those who deliberately reject His grace and stubbornly refuse to accept Him. Even in those cases, however, Our Lord wants us to pray for their conversion—for miracles can occur not only in the physical realm, but sometimes also within the human soul.
The Gospel of Mark (6:1-6) doesn’t tell us that Jesus was unwilling to work miracles in His hometown of Nazareth when the people there refused to believe in Him; it states that He was not able to do so—for God’s grace can only enter a heart willing to receive it. Centuries earlier the prophet Ezekiel (2:2-5) was warned by God that his preaching might not be effective due to the people’s obstinate and rebellious attitude. St. Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians (12:7-10) states that he had learned humility and trust through his sufferings, but not everyone reacts that way; quite often the misfortunes of life cause people to close their hearts to the Lord. God, however, never gives up on them, and neither must we.
The Franciscan priest St. Francis Solano was known for his ability to convert the most hardened sinners through his powerful preaching—but he wasn’t always successful in saving souls. A young man who had lived a very sinful life was on his deathbed, and Father Francis held out a crucifix, saying, “Here, my son; kiss this Cross of Jesus as a sign of your desire to be saved by Him.” Tragically, the young man refused and turned his head away—and then died at that instant. We can only assume that someone who rejects God’s grace at the final moment of his life thereby chooses everlasting damnation.
Refusing to repent can have eternally disastrous consequences—but if repentance does occur, even the most hardened sinner will be lovingly embraced by God. In 1896, four years after he wrote his slanderous book about Lourdes, Emile Zola suffered a compound fracture to his leg, and despite medical attention, the wound grew so much worse that it seemed the leg would have to be amputated. On Christmas Eve Zola dreamt he was in a church singing a carol to a statue of Our Lady and the Christ Child—and awakened to hear his wife singing that very hymn. Shaken by that coincidence, Zola asked her to go to church and light a candle for him—and later that day his leg was miraculously healed. Zola immediately went to Confession, then began praying, going to Mass, and receiving Communion whenever possible; he also publicly retracted his deceptive book, apologized for his anti-religious speeches and writings, and warned everyone of the dangers of belonging to the Masons (“A Sign of Contradiction,” Love One Another, #11).
Conversions and other spiritual miracles are always possible, and we can hope that many of the residents of Nazareth who disbelieved in Jesus at first later repented and became Christians. God never gives up on anyone. St. Augustine once wrote that the Bible contains a story of a deathbed conversion—namely, that of the Good Thief, crucified with Jesus—so that sinners will not despair; however, he said, the Bible contains only one such story, so that sinners will not smugly assume they’ll automatically be saved, no matter what. Those who persist in ignoring or rejecting God’s grace truly are risking eternal damnation. Presumably none of us attending Mass face this danger—but we must never become complacent. The devil is constantly trying to pull us away from God, step by step—and if we allow him to slowly undermine our faith, the day may come when we find ourselves saying “No!” to God, perhaps without fully realizing it.
We must remain firmly committed to Jesus, and this certainly includes praying for the conversion of sinners. The Lord does not want even one soul to be lost, and our humble prayers, good example, and kind acceptance of an atheist, a public sinner, or a fallen-away Catholic may provide a small but life-changing opening for divine grace to enter into his or her heart. This isn’t merely a matter of life and death; the stakes are much higher: eternal damnation, or everlasting peace and joy. God never gives up on anyone, and neither must we—and if it turns out that our prayers and Gospel witness were the catalyst for someone’s conversion, we’ll be able to rejoice with that person forever in the glory of Heaven. Let us ask the Lord to help us recognize and use the opportunities we’re given to make a real and lasting difference—for if we do, we can be sure God will indeed use us to help bring about spiritual healings and miracles of the heart.