There are many examples of saints we honor today who in their youth lived worldly, unedifying lives. While heading in one direction, something in their lives led to their conversion, so that they turned things around and began living for God.
We know St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), for example, as the founder of the Society of Jesus and the one who developed the spiritual exercises used by many on retreat. But when he was young, Ignatius enjoyed a life of wealth and privilege and was far from God. He loved to show off his beautiful clothing, and kept his hair and fingernails immaculate. In addition to being a vain man, he also had a bad temper and fought duels. He loved to gamble. He wanted glory and fame, so he became a soldier in search of it on the battlefield. A cannonball fired from an enemy gun would lead Ignatius to dramatically change his plans.
In 1521, while defending the citadel of Pamplona against the French, Ignatius was struck in the legs by a cannonball, which caused a particularly bad fracture in the right leg. He laid in bed many months in recovery and took to reading to occupy his mind. He read a story of the life of Christ and stories of the saints. He came to realize that the true heroes were the saints, not those who sought glory on the battlefield.
Ignatius sent long hours begging God’s forgiveness for his sins. He pledged himself to live a life of penance, like the desert fathers and the saints, and to a new battle against the “powers and principalities” that sought his soul. In 1522, when he had recovered from his injuries, he confessed the sins of his life and spent a night in ardent prayer before an image of the Blessed Mother. He resolved to give his life to God. At one point, a severe tremor shook the building. Ignatius took it as a sign that God had forgiven him and henceforth would direct his life. He left his soldier’s weapons and armor behind and went on to his new life’s work for God. In the decades following, his Jesuit community would play a critical role in combating the religious errors that plagued Europe.
Many of you reading this article may have lived a life away from God or are struggling with vice. Like St. Ignatius, we can experience conversion, repent of our sins, seek God’s mercy and set off in a new direction that God wills for us. A good first step for Catholics is use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is critical to our spiritual growth and helps us overcome trials and adversity. I find it tragic that people do not understand how essential Reconciliation is. We may not feel we need the sacrament or that we have done anything that bad. We might be embarrassed, or don’t feel we have the time. The truth is so different.
MERCY SHOWN TO OTHERS
Besides receiving God’s mercy, the saints distinguish themselves by the mercy they show to others. St. Maria Goretti (1890-1902) was a poor Italian girl whose family lived with another family to help pay the bills. Her father died when she was 10. Maria had nothing by way of material possessions, but had a deep love for God. Her mother, Assunta, also taught her the importance of purity and to avoid those who would compromise it.
A young man from the family with whom they lived, Alessandro Serenelli, prompted by pornographic images developed a lustful desire for Maria. He began making comments expressing his desire for her, but threatened violence if she told anyone. One day Alessandro got her alone and confronted her with a knife, insisting she submit sexually to him. She refused, believing that God had given her her body to do His will. Alessandro went into a rage, and stabbed her 14 times.
Maria died the next day. Before she did, she forgave Alessandro. Her last words were, “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli … and I want him with me in heaven forever.’
Alessandro was quickly arrested and sent to prison for 30 years. He was initially unrepentant, an angry young man constantly getting into fights. Six years into his sentence, however, Maria appeared to Alessandro in a dream, handing him 14 white lilies, the symbol of purity, one for each time he had stabbed her. When he awoke, he was a changed man. He made his confession, and became a model prisoner.
Upon his release from prison Alessandro went to see Maria’s mother, Assunta, and asked her forgiveness. She said, “If Maria forgives you, and God forgives you, how can I not also forgive you?” When Maria was canonized in 1950, Alessandro and Assunta both went to Rome to witness it. Alessandro became a lay Franciscan brother and lived an exemplary life until his death in 1970.
MERCY TO WOULD-BE ASSASSIN
Closer to our time we have the example of Pope St. John Paul II who showed mercy to his would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca as he sat in prison. On May 13, 1981, the pope was crossing St Peter’s Square in Vatican City when an attempt was made on his life. Four shots were fired directly at him with a 9-millimeter pistol. The bullets struck the pontiff’s lower intestine, right arm and left index finger. He was rushed to the hospital.
The pontiff, with severe blood loss, asked for all Catholics to pray for the man who had shot him. He told the world that he had “sincerely forgiven” Mehmet Ali Agca. I remember thinking: what would I do? How forgiving would I be?
St. John Paul II followed up with an incredible visit to his would-be assassin in prison. He spoke to him privately, loving him, with the forgiveness of Christ. Demonstrating that it was not just a one-time event, the pope stayed in touch with him and his family. He even requested in 2000 that he be released from prison, which was granted.
After Mehmet Ali Agca was deported to Turkey, in a miracle of Christ’s love, personified by Pope St. John Paul II, he converted to Christianity in 2010! What love! What an example by Pope St. John Paul II!
Forgiving other people is incredibly difficult. We’re so fortunate we have the examples of saints like Maria and Pope St. John Paul II to teach us. I can think of many times in my own life when I have struggled to forgive.
When people hurt us, especially emotionally, we are at a crossroad. Do we attempt to do harm in the same way we are hurt or do we try to forgive through the power the Holy Spirit? When we attempt to see the person through the eyes of Jesus, our attitude changes. To Jesus, every person has value. God hates the sin but loves the sinner. We are to do the same. Everyone is made in the image and likeness of God. Jesus died for that person exactly the way he is. Who are we to judge and condemn him?
Jesus is very clear that we need to love our brothers and sisters.
He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling. But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.1 John 2:10-11
Throughout this powerful letter Saint John tells us to love one another no matter what.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God … Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.1 John 4:7, 11-12
Notice it doesn’t say to love one another if they treat us well and are nice to us. It doesn’t say that if they earned our love, then it is okay to love people. No, it is not conditional. No matter how much they are nice to us or hurt us, we are to respond to them with the same amount of love!
Is that easy? Of course not! That is why we must ask for the gift of greater love and forgiveness. It is a spiritual blessing! The good news? We are told in the first chapter of Ephesians that we have received “every spiritual blessing in the heavens.” When we love with the love of Jesus as the saints did we are filled with grace upon grace that is reflected in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Rejoice! You are chosen to be holy and blessed!