A few weeks ago, the Columbus Dispatch newspaper in Ohio printed a story about a First Communion – but it’s one unlike any other you may have heard. It says something beautiful, I think, about the power of the Eucharist, the “bread of life.” But it is also a story of qualities in short supply in our world today: forgiveness and reconciliation.
The story began 33 years ago. Late on a cold night in December of 1979, a 16-year-old boy named Ron McClary was at a convenience store in Columbus, when police officer Tom Hayes spotted him. He realized the boy was violating a local curfew. When Hayes tried to arrest him, McClary resisted. In a split-second decision, the teenager made the biggest mistake of his young life. He pulled out a gun and shot Tom Hayes in the back.
Officer Hayes survived, but barely.
The day after the shooting, a priest friend of the officer, Fr. Kevin Lutz, visited Hayes in the hospital. Officer Hayes told the priest was afraid of dying. Fr. Lutz asked him if he was able to forgive the boy who had shot him.
Officer Hayes told him: “I don’t want to go before Almighty God with hatred in my heart. I prayed I would go to heaven and that he would, too.”
Ron McClary was arrested and tried as an adult. He spent 24 years behind bars.
Tom Hayes spent the rest of his life paralyzed from the waist down. He endured bed sores, catheters, infections and even a leg amputation. But not a day went by that he didn’t pray for Ron McClary.
This went on for over three decades, until Officer Hayes died, in January of 2011. Shortly afterword, his friend Fr. Lutz decided to find out what had happened to the boy who had shot him.
He found Ron McClary living in poverty, in a small apartment in Columbus. The teenager had grown into a middle-aged man, now crippled by multiple sclerosis. Fr. Lutz told him who he was, and told him what had happened to Officer Hayes. He said that the paralyzed policeman had spent his life praying for him. He also told him he had forgiven him. McClary, deeply moved, invited him to come back, and to keep talking. And Fr. Lutz did. McClary had difficulty communicating, but after many weeks, he made one thing clear: he wanted to be baptized.
Fr. Lutz baptized him in his home, using a simple coffee cup.
And so it happened that last month Ron McClary was taken by stretcher to Holy Family Church in Columbus. Waiting for him were Fr. Lutz, and Mary Hayes, Tom Hayes’ widow. Fr. Lutz had called her the night before to tell her Ron’s story and invite her to the Mass. She wasn’t sure she could find the strength to be there. Her husband, she said, was a bigger person than she was. But she knew what he would have wanted, and she went to the church that morning. It was, she said, her greatest test as a Christian. She was there as Ron McClary received his First Communion. Then, a few moments later, Mary Hayes bent down and whispered to McClary the words her husband never had a chance to say: “I forgive you.”
Week after week, we stand here and pray before God words most of us learned when we were children: “Forgive us,” we pray. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Mary Hayes showed how it is done.
A few moments ago, we heard St. Paul telling the Ephesians:
“Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.”
Mary Hayes showed how it is done.
And it was done at a moment that gave new meaning to the gospel we just heard. It happened as Ron McClary finally received the bread of life. And it happened, I think, because of the bread of life—Christ, present in all who believe in him, and present in a special way in the sacrament of the Eucharist, the sacrament that nourishes us and heals us and gives us grace.
That grace binds us intimately to the One who loves without conditions, the One who forgives without questions, the One who heals without counting the cost all who are broken.
The gospel reminds us that Jesus, the bread of life, gives life to all who follow him, all who receive him, all who welcome him. To a world that is violent, and vindictive, and vengeful, he offers something unexpected: healing, and hope.
It is enough to make an unforgiving world…forgive.
Ron McClary’s journey into the Church isn’t quite done. Fr. Lutz hopes to confirm him soon – and he hopes that he might choose for his confirmation name Thomas, the name of the officer whose life he changed 33 years ago…but the name, too, of the apostle who doubted but finally came to believe.
This Sunday’s scripture cries out to us to believe.
Believe in forgiveness.
Believe that we can forgive others as God forgives us.
And believe all that because the God who comes to us in the appearance of bread can change not only bread; He can also change us.
Forgiving another may be the hardest challenge we face as Christians. Most of us won’t have to contend with forgiving someone who crippled a person we love. But maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s forgiving a spouse who cheated…or a friend who betrayed you…or a co-worker who backstabbed you.
Maybe it’s forgiving ourselves for a mistake we made, or a wrong we did to another.
But in a few moments we will stand together and pray again the words we need to say, and the hope we need to hear:
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Let us pray not only to be forgiven — but to be able to forgive.
Let us pray to be like bread in God’s hands so that, like Ron McClary, we too may be changed