Many years ago in my first parish there was a young man who did a terrible, terrible thing. He was 17 years old and a senior in high school. He and a buddy were out on a Saturday evening. They got hold of some cocaine and got stoned. In that state they were not thinking clearly. They approached a 7/11 in their car. After parking, the young man’s buddy handed him a knife and told him that they were going to hold up the 7/11 store. He agreed without the slightest protest. When they entered the store he was supposed to go to the counter and show the knife and tell the clerk to give him all the money in the cash register. Something went wrong and the clerk resisted. All this young man can now remember is the clerk laying on the ground and him holding the knife and blood everywhere. They ran, jumped into their car and sped off. Ultimately, they were both caught and the clerk died. I can’t remember the exact number, but the autopsy revealed that the clerk had been stabbed dozens of times.
The young man was held in juvenile hall and it was there that I met him. He was incredibly remorseful. He cried and cried and cried. He knew clearly that what he had done was the most terrible of things. He had taken a life and he had ruined the lives of the clerk’s parents, family and friends. All for nothing! He knew he could never repay these people. He could do nothing that would bring back the young man he had killed. In this young man’s eyes there was no hope. He was sure that he could never be forgiven, not by the clerk he killed, his parents, family, or friends; not even by God!
That was the first time in my life that I had met someone who was living in Hell. I was 26 and newly ordained. I had never been in that kind of a situation. We prayed together, he received the sacrament of reconciliation, but he continued to be without hope. Somehow, he saw himself as condemned to everlasting Hell, and he was convinced that he deserved it and had begun to live in Hell. I don’t remember how many times I met with him. A friend of mine, Margaret Mudd, who was volunteering at juvenile hall for the parish, also met with him. Over and over again we tried to tell him that God never stops loving us. We tried to tell him about the Sacred Heart of Jesus that was all-empathic, ineffable, all-embracing and all-forgiving. We repeated over and over that our God, in the person of Jesus, had descended into Hell to save those who had died without salvation, so great was God’s love for all people.
Somehow, this message was hard for this young man to receive. To this day, I’m not sure he ever accepted God’s loving, forgiveness. Over the years, I have met many people who could not accept a God who is all-forgiving. I have spent hours with women and men who were responsible for the abortion of their children. I have listened to the story of people who left or abandoned a spouse and children. I have heard the confession of people who killed in war and frequently struggled to forgive themselves and to believe that God could forgive them.
For Christians, this is the message of the Gospel. God, who is love, loves us unconditionally. No matter what I may have done or failed to do, God can and does forgive me. Accepting this message, this Good News, is what is called salvation. Sharing it with others is our privilege and responsibility!