No one is too far gone for God.
Regardless of how many poor choices you’ve made, how many people you’ve hurt or how you’ve broken the laws of God and man, God is still willing to welcome you back with open arms if you sincerely ask His forgiveness and try to change your ways.
Don’t believe it? Take the saints as an example.
Christian art has done the saints no favors. Whether in marble or in plaster, on canvas or on a laminated holy card, we see saints who are blissful and pure, who appear incapable of ever uttering a harsh word let alone spending years living like dirty, rotten scoundrels. In other words, most depictions of saints make holiness look easy. It’s not.
A conversion experience is not magic; it is only the first step in a lifetime of striving to grow in virtue and conform one’s unruly, rebellious will to the will of God. All that is hard to do. But the history of our world is full of sinners who turned their lives around to become saints officially canonized by the Church — and people who, with the help of God’s grace, managed to climb out of the downward spiral toward which their lives and souls were heading.
Some of the examples are well known. There’s St. Paul, who was responsible for the murder of many early Christians before his dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus. And St. Augustine of Hippo led a life of arrogant pride and sexual immorality before offering his mind, heart and soul to God, thanks in part to the Letters of St. Paul and the prayers of his mother, St. Monica.
There are also many dramatic stories that are little-known, but that give powerful witness to a person’s ability to change.
The Embezzler Who Became a Saint
Visitors to Rome will know St. Callixtus (died 222) as San Callisto, the patron of one of the Eternal City’s most famous catacombs. But it’s not likely that tour guides will say anything about his unsavory past.
Callixtus was a Christian slave whose master decided to open a kind of bank where his fellow Christians could keep their money. The master put Callixtus in charge of the bank. He couldn’t have made a worse choice. Callixtus was so careless in his investment decisions that he lost virtually all the depositors’ money. The rest of the money found its way into Callixtus’ pocket.
Afraid of what his irate master might do to him, Callixtus ran away, but was caught, brought back to Rome and imprisoned. Following an incompetent attempt to recover some of the money he had lost, Callixtus caused a public riot, which got him sentenced to slave labor in the mines of Sardinia. There he would have stayed until he died if the Roman emperor had not, unexpectedly, issued a general amnesty for all Christian prisoners.
When Callixtus turned up in Rome again, Pope St. Victor I took responsibility for him. In the spirit of charity tempered by prudence, the Pope found Callixtus a little house far outside the city walls and gave him a stipend. Victor also took to visiting Callixtus. In a short time, the embezzler and brawler showed signs of genuine repentance—so much so that he was ordained a deacon, then a priest, and was given management of the Christian catacomb we know today as San Callisto. In 217 the clergy of Rome elected Callixtus pope. Five years later, he died a martyr.
Callixtus’ martyrdom and veneration as a saint is something no one who knew the old Callixtus would have predicted. And Callixtus had Pope Victor to thank. Good shepherd that he was, Victor sought out the lost sheep. And Callixtus, moved by Victor’s kindness and patience, and touched by God’s grace, responded and turned his back on his old, sinful life.
A Life of Wealth, Sex and Vanity
Blessed Angela of Foligno (c.1248-1309) was beautiful, wealthy, and vain. As a rich man’s wife she wallowed in luxury. Her passions were expensive clothes and flashy jewels, extravagant meals and rare wines. She dressed and acted in ways that would provoke envy among women and sexual desire among men. When she was not indulging herself, she spent hours gossiping with her friends and maligning her neighbors.
In her autobiography Angela discloses that in 1285 she did something so bad that for the first time in her life she began to live in fear of Hell. Her biographers speculate that Angela committed adultery, and given the intensity of her guilt and shame that seems likely.
Near despair, she prayed to St. Francis of Assisi to help her. As Angela prayed the saint appeared to her. “Sister,” St. Francis said, “if you would have asked me sooner I would have complied with your request sooner. Nonetheless, your request is granted.” That same day Angela offered a sincere confession to a priest.
As she stepped from the shadowy interior of the church into the bright sunlight of the piazza, Angela resolved to begin a new life. She sold her fine clothes and jewels to relieve the suffering of Foligno’s poor. After the death of her husband, she gave away all her wealth, associated herself with the Franciscans, and with a handful of other holy women dedicated herself to tending the poor and the sick.
Blessed Angela’s life teaches us a timeless lesson about our weakness and God’s mercy. All that he requires is that we repent and make a sincere effort to do better in the future.
In his book “Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints,” author Thomas Craughwell notes that some of the church’s revered holy men and women led murderous lives before turning to God.
St. Olga (c. 890 to 969), for instance, was a princess from Kiev (modern day Ukraine). When her husband was murdered by members of a rival tribe, Olga enacted revenge against them by burying some alive, burning others, and eventually burning down an entire town. Thousands lost their lives. Years later, Olga converted to Christianity during a journey to Constantinople. It’s believed that she was partially inspired to convert by the beauty of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy.
Olga’s grandson, St. Vladimir, was a bloodthirsty ruler in his own right. He sometimes engaged in human sacrifices to placate the gods that his people worshiped. But after converting to Christianity, Vladimir not only constructed churches throughout his realm to replace pagan temples, he also outlawed the death penalty. Both Olga and Vladimir are revered for introducing Christianity to the Ukraine and Russia.
Critics who would reject such candidates for sainthood have forgotten the story of the Good Thief recorded in St. Luke’s gospel. As he hung on the cross beside Jesus, just minutes away from death, the thief repented. Christ promised him, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” That story from Luke is why, when it comes to holiness, the Catholic Church takes a broad view. By insisting on heartfelt contrition rather than life-long sanctity, the Church leaves open the possibility that there is hope for the redemption of all people, regardless of the severity of their past sins.
The Prodigal Son Meets SEAL Team SIX
Though Church history is full of canonized saints who moved beyond their sinful pasts, we can also look to modern examples of people whose lives seemed destined for darkness until the love of God offered a second chance.
Take, for instance, Adam Brown, subject of the Christopher Award-winning biography “Fearless,” written by Eric Blehm. Adam’s childhood in Hot Springs, Arkansas, was defined by the selflessness and compassion he demonstrated toward others.
When Adam started attending college, he got involved with a group of friends, who encouraged him to use crack. The drug took over his life. He started stealing in order to buy more drugs. The “good kid” wound up a criminal with eleven felonies.
Adam’s parents, Larry and Janice, were devastated. They wanted to help, but had no choice other than to watch their son hit rock bottom. Though Janice had never gone to church and Larry hadn’t attended in 30 years, Adam’s troubles led them to join a local Baptist congregation and put Adam in God’s hands. Spiritual support from the pastor and prayer community helped the Browns take a “tough love” approach with their son: they had him arrested and he went to jail. That’s when Adam’s life began its turnaround because he found God behind and started reading the Bible.
Adam suffered relapses into addiction, but with ongoing support from his family and his wife, with whom he had two children, he endured his trials, joined the Navy, and became a member of the elite SEAL Team SIX.
Unfortunately, Adam Brown was killed in combat on March 17, 2010, while serving in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan. He’d always known the worst could happen, so when he prepared his “last request” letter to his family, he asked that his entire life be remembered—the good and the bad.
Blehm explained on “Christopher Closeup,” “Everybody would have remembered Adam as a success story, and his past could have gladly been put into a box and forgotten. But he said to his parents and wife, ‘If anything happens to me, let people know who I was when I was at my worst, and that might inspire some people to get out of their own dark holes, to seek faith, to find strength in whatever it is that could help them to get through it.’”
Though Adam Brown is not “officially” a saint, his ability to turn his life around after descending to a virtual hell on earth remains a testament to the power of God’s love, grace and mercy in all our lives.
“There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future.”
– St. Augustine of Hippo
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