On Revenge: Inspired by two accounts of Divine Mercy in the lives of heroic Catholics, Father Gordon MacRae writes of a harrowing Lenten challenge: Giving Up Getting Even.
“The Priest Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest!” That’s how one TSW reader described my post, “Stay of Execution: Catholic Conscience and the Death Penalty” last November. It’s been awhile since a post of mine generated such controversy, and I’m still hearing about it. A few readers asked to be removed from TSW’s subscriber list as a result of that post, but not many. Other readers told me that pondering that post caused them to rethink this issue in a less black and white way, and more as the complex moral debate it is, and should be, in a Catholic conscience.
I briefly mentioned in that post that the New Hampshire State Prison – where I have been a guest of the taxpayers for the last twenty years – has but one man on death row. His name is Michael Addison. He stands convicted and condemned to death for the murder of Officer Michael Briggs, a decorated and much beloved Manchester, NH police officer gunned down in the line of duty. The case sparked a furor in New Hampshire, and the death penalty was imposed for the first time since 1939.
Just weeks after I wrote “Stay of Execution,” I was profoundly moved to read another account of a man now questioning his long time support of capital punishment. “A Matter of Life and Death” by John Breckinridge is simply astonishing. It was published in the December issue of Parable, the news magazine of the Diocese of Manchester, NH. I commend the Parable editor for publishing this fine piece, but most of all I commend John Breckinridge for writing it. It was written with great courage by a man whose convictions were formed in the forge of Divine Mercy.
John Breckinridge is no passive observer in this story. He was the partner of the late Officer Michael Briggs, and he was there in that Manchester alley on the fateful night of October 16, 2006 when his partner’s life was taken from him “for simply and bravely doing his duty as an officer.” Following that tragic loss, John Breckinridge testified before a legislative committee calling for New Hampshire to retain its death penalty. He looked upon Michael Addison as his mortal enemy. “Let’s put him to death and get it over with,” he wrote.
John Breckinridge has since heeded an inner summons to return to the Catholic faith he left behind as an adolescent, and in the process of returning to faith, he realized that his positions on life and death could not comfortably come with him. In just a few pages in Parable, John laid out the grueling process of discernment that brought him to revisit not only the death penalty in concept, but his wish for the punishment of death for the man who perpetrated this terrible crime, a crime that left a widow and orphans and an urban police department and community demoralized and devastated by this senseless loss.
I won’t lay out the details of what led John Breckinridge to reverse his view, and I do not at all suggest that to be a good and conscientious Catholic you must follow suit. It isn’t John’s conclusion of conscience that so inspired me so much as how he came to this conclusion:
“I’m a Catholic. And today those three words mean more to me than I ever thought they would, including the loss of several friends who cannot understand how a guy who has seen what I have seen could go from speaking publicly in favor of the death penalty to testifying against it. It has not been an easy journey and ultimately I didn’t make the change. I just descended until I hit a humble enough spot in life where all I could do is ask God for forgiveness. He gave it unconditionally. As the receiver of that gift, who am I to rob it from someone else? Even my worst enemy.” (John Breckinridge)
I hope you’ll join me in one of the most inspiring Divine Mercy stories I have ever read: “A Matter of Life and Death,” by John Breckinridge.
HEROIC WITNESS AT THE FOOT OF THE CROSS
In my Ash Wednesday post, “With the Dawn Comes Rejoicing,” last week, I wrote of an article by Felix Carroll in the venerable old Catholic magazine, Marian Helper. “Mary is at Work Here” described the “33 Days to Morning Glory” retreat that has breathed remarkable life into a Catholic presence behind these prison walls. [Flash Version and PDF Version]
But it was another account by Felix Carroll in that same issue that altered the path of my own Lenten journey this year. It was the Divine Mercy story of Gerald and Ann Marie Johnston, ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges to faith, that has so inspired me. In “A Saint Who Struggled Like Us,” [Flash Version and PDF Version] Felix Carroll described the tragic faith journey of this inspiring couple:
“Within a three-month span in 2001, their 22-year-old son, Matthew, died unexpectedly from a heart condition and their 16-year-old daughter, Faith, revealed that a priest had raped her.”
I could not believe I was reading this story in what has long been known as a pious Catholic magazine. It was a dose of reality that shook me to the core, and as I read the brief account I marveled at Felix Carroll’s great gift for bringing the truths and challenges of faith into the trenches of life where we all live it. In just two short pages, the story left me in awe of the capacity of human souls open to grace.
I remembered the story vividly from the onslaught of bad press aimed at the Catholic Church in 2001 and 2002, especially here in New England. Catholic leaders were simply reeling from one account after another of decades-old claims of abuse by Catholic priests. Then, in the midst of our collective shame and dismay, this story of a clear and very present betrayal of innocence made front-page news in Massachusetts. A troubled young priest, Father Kelvin Iguabita, was placed on trial as this story reached its peak in 2003, and from all accounts of its compelling evidence, justice was served. Father Iguabita was convicted and is serving a sentence in a Massachusetts prison.
However, I had no idea of the plight of the people on the other side of this story – the Johnston family – until I read Felix Carroll’s article. Gerald and Ann Marie Johnston have faced loss and betrayal with heroic Catholic witness to their faith. Their story of how Saint Joseph aided them through such a dark time also inspires me and many others.
Their story was also read by Pornchai-Maximilian and Mike Ciresi whose own Divine Mercy stories were told in “With the Dawn Comes Rejoicing,” my Ash Wednesday post. It was in part the Johnstons’ witness that inspired Mike Ciresi to seek healing for his own wounds of betrayal by entering into the “33 Days to Morning Glory” retreat. I urge you to read Felix Carroll’s “A Saint Who Struggled Like Us” in Marian Helper in preparation for the Feast of Saint Joseph on March 19. [Flash Version and PDF Version]
After reading of the Johnstons’ heroic witness to faith, I wrote to Felix Carroll to commend him and the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception for publishing such a courageous tribute to Divine Mercy. If you are not a member of the Association of Marian Helpers, please explore this opportunity to be a part of a movement that, here behind these stone walls, has swept us off our feet! Become a Marian Helper at www.marian.org.
GIVING UP GETTING EVEN
There’s a scene in the great film, The Shawshank Redemption, that reminds me vividly of the day I arrived in this prison nearly twenty years ago. In the film, the Shawshank prisoners were lined up in the prison yard to watch, cheer, or jeer as a bus load of newly convicted prisoners arrived behind the walls, including the film’s main character.
Andy Dufresne, played by actor Tim Robbins, clearly did not fit in with the thugs and thieves who felt at home in Shawshank prison. As a result, he was targeted for “special treatment “ by both guards and prisoners. The scene was eerily reminiscent of the day I arrived in prison, a day I wrote of in la 2012 Holy Week post, “Dismas, Crucified to the Right: Paradise Lost and Found.”
Almost 20 years have passed since that day. Though the losses and betrayals I have faced are different from those endured by John Breckinridge and Gerald and Ann Marie Johnston, their struggles resonate with my own. No where has this summons to embrace Divine Mercy been more of a challenge in my life than in a story I wrote three years ago this month entitled, “Potholes on the High Road: Forgiving Those Who Trespass Against Us.” Here’s an excerpt:
“A few weeks ago when I hung up the telephone after hearing of the suicide of my prosecutor, I said nothing to anyone. I just went to my prison cell – the cell he helped put me in over 16 years ago – and went on about my day. It was a strange irony that the day I learned of this was my 6,000th day in this prison…”
The remainder of that post lays out the long and winding road to Divine Mercy that the suicide of my prosecutor set into motion. I believe it makes for good Lenten reading, so I’ll end this post while your eyes are still open enough to go there and read “Potholes on the High Road.”
But before you go, I just this moment realized that this path to Divine Mercy began as I marked 6,000 days in prison. As my Ash Wednesday post revealed last week, I entered into total Consecration to Mary – along with our friend, Pornchai-Maximilian – on the Solemnity of Christ the King, November 24, 2013, marking 7,000 days in this prison. Exactly 1,000 days of grief – and, yes, even some joy – passed in between.
I now offer those 1,000 days for you, the readers of These Stone Walls, for your own journeys along the paths to Divine Mercy. It isn’t too late. Let this Lent be a time of great personal renewal and the triumph of the Holy Spirit within you. Join us at the Foot of the Cross to mark the transformation of loss and betrayal into the mystery of sanctifying grace.
His Mother wants a word with you, too. March 25th is the Solemnity of the Annunciation. Visit www.AllHeartsAfire.org to explore how you can join in our Blessed Mother’s “Yes” to God through Marian Consecration.
Editors note: Next week on These Stone Walls a special guest post by Pornchai Maximilian Moontri about a very important anniversary. Don’t miss this Lenten tribute to Divine Mercy. Also, a continued thanks to TSW readers for their generosity in responding to Ryan MacDonald’s appeal to help with the legal costs, at the Federal level. We haven’t reached our goal yet, so please share this link to Ryan’s news alert post!