Saints Misbehavin'

THOMAS J. CRAUGHWELL

Even the holiest men and women were not always thus.

Jacques Fesch
(1930-1957)

This Wednesday is All Saints Day, the holy day when Roman Catholics commemorate the lives and virtues of all the saints. The word "saint," of course, has long since entered our broad cultural lexicon, implying virtue of the highest sort even to nonbelievers. But in practice, saintly virtue is rarely a lifelong possession. Indeed, it sometimes emerges only after a good deal of sin has gone before.

Can a cop killer be a saint, for instance? In recent years, certain Catholics have debated precisely that question. The retired archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean Marie Lustiger, thinks so. In 1987, he began the formal process by which Jacques Fesch, a convicted murderer guillotined by the French state in 1957, might be declared a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

Fesch's case has generated widespread interest in France. Amazon.com's French site lists a dozen books about the repentant felon, including editions of his letters from death row, where he returned to the Catholic faith. In the U.S., Fesch is virtually unknown, but last month a popular Catholic blog's reference to Fesch as a candidate for sainthood set off a lively debate. Some of the blog's posters argued that as long as Fesch's conversion was sincere, he was eligible for sainthood. Others insisted that his scandalous life disqualified him from canonization.


Fesch's critics have a point. He was the wastrel son of a wealthy family, a chronic adulterer who divorced his wife, and a playboy who produced an illegitimate child, whom he abandoned. By his own admission, Fesch fantasized about sailing to the South Pacific, where he would live a Gauguin-esque life of perfect hedonism. Alas, his parents refused to bankroll such a scheme. Undeterred, on Feb. 25, 1954, he entered a Paris currency dealer's shop, grabbed 300,000 francs from the till, pistol-whipped the proprietor and then bolted out the door.

As the shop owner stumbled into the street after him, Jean Vergne, a 35-year-old French police officer, intervened, ordering Fesch to surrender. Fesch refused. Instead he shot Vergne three times through the heart. Vergne, a widower with a 4-year-old daughter, was dead before he hit the pavement. At his trial, Fesch was surly and unrepentant, which made it easy for the court to find him guilty and sentence him to death.


Indeed, the Catholic calendar is full of notorious men and women who turned their lives around and became saints.


Then, almost a year he gunned down Officer Vergne, Fesch had a forceful, even violent, conversion experience. First the realization of everything he had done crashed down on him; then, as Fesch put it, "the spirit of the Lord seized me by the throat." From that moment on he was a changed man. He begged the prison chaplain to hear his confession. He began to pray. He tried to repair the breach with his family.

God may have forgiven Fesch, but the state was not so lenient. On Oct. 1, 1957, a troop of prison guards led Fesch to the guillotine in the prison yard in Paris. His last words before the blade fell were: "Holy Virgin, have pity on me."

Those opposed to the idea that someday there will be a "St. Fesch" cannot reconcile his grievous wrongdoing with saintly status, and little wonder. These days, when we think of a saintly life, we think of someone like Mother Theresa, with her lifelong sacrifice and dedication to helping the sick and poor. (She is herself one step away from canonization.) But the church's standard for sainthood allows for something less than cradle-to-grave perfection.

Consider St. Callixtus of Rome, who died in 222: He was an embezzler, a brawler, a twice convicted felon. Yet Callixtus was touched by grace, repented, became a priest, was elected pope and died a martyr.

Indeed, the Catholic calendar is full of notorious men and women who turned their lives around and became saints. St. Camillus de Lellis (1550-1614) was an Italian mercenary soldier, a cardsharp and con man. For six years St. Margaret of Cortona (1247-1297) lived as a Tuscan nobleman's mistress. St. Moses the Ethiopian (c. 330-405) led a gang of cutthroats in the Egyptian desert. In 217 in Rome, St. Hippolytus set himself up as the first antipope. And St. Pelagia was the porn queen of fifth-century Antioch; her contemporary, St. John Chrysostom, recalled that "nothing was more vile than she was, when she was on the stage."


Perhaps the worst was St. Olga. When her husband, the prince of Kiev, was assassinated by a rival tribe in 945, Olga embarked on a program of revenge that bordered on the genocidal.

And yet each of these figures redeemed his sinful earlier life to arrive at the extraordinary level of holiness that the church deems worthy of canonization. Critics who would reject such saints may be forgetting the story of the Good Thief recorded in Luke's gospel. As he hung on the cross beside Christ, just minutes away from death, he repented. Christ promised him: "Today you shall be with me in Paradise." By insisting on heart-felt contrition rather than life-long sanctity, the church leaves open the possibility that a murderer like Jacques Fesch can become a saint. And that's good news for all of us.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Thomas J. Craughwell. "Saints Misbehavin'." Wall Street Journal (October 27, 2006).

This article is reprinted with permission from The Wall Street Journal 2006 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of a dozen books, including Saints Behaving Badly: the Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints, Saints for Every Occasion, Every Eye Beholds You: A World Treasury of Prayer, The Wisdom of the Popes: A Collection of Statements of the Popes Since Peter on a Variety of Religious and Social Issues, Do Blue Bedsheets Bring Babies?: The Truth Behind Old Wives Tales, and three volumes of urban legends. He writes a monthly column on patron saints for Catholic diocesan newspapers. Craughwell has written about saints for The Wall Street Journal, St. Anthony Messenger, and Catholic Digest, and has discussed them on CNN and EWTN. He lives in Bethel, Connecticut.

Copyright © 2006 Wall Street Journal




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