Saints Misbehavin'THOMAS J. CRAUGHWELL
Even the holiest men and women were not always thus.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
Copyright © 2006 Wall Street Journal
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.