On April 6, 1957 a young man was convicted of murder and sentenced to death: he had murdered a stock merchant at the Paris stock exchange by bludgeoning him to death and in his attempt to escape had shot and murdered a police man, and seriously wounded another. Jacques Fesch had grown up in a well to do home, but there was no love. His girlfriend became pregnant and he was unable to provide, no matter what he did. He eventually sought to escape and he would use any means to get to his desired tropical island, no matter what it cost him. He needed more money than he had to get to his desired tropical island…he decided to do whatever he needed to do, regardless of the cost to obtain the money. Even steal and murder.
He was placed in solitary confinement and allowed one hour of recreation a day. He told the priest chaplain he had no faith. Gradually the bitterness and anger subsided and he experienced the beginning of a conversion after reading a book about our Lady. He received a Bible and read it constantly, saying he felt like a Carthusian. He very much desired to have his civil marriage blessed by the church, but that never happened. He desired very much to receive the Eucharist but that was not often possible. The night before he died he had his final spiritual battle. In the midst of terror, he turned again to the Blessed Mother’s intercession, praying the Rosary to prepare for his death by guillotine. As he went to his end, he begged the priest for the crucifix, and his final act was to kiss the crucifix.
Jacques Fesch’s cause for canonization has been opened and he is now a Servant of God.
This is a very powerful example of the battle between grace and sin. As Saint Paul reminds us, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” (Romans 5:20). This is a modern day version of what we hear today in the Gospel, a very well known Gospel passage. The fall of Jacques Fesch did not happen overnight—he was raised in a very broken home without faith, without love, without stability.
Sin is like that—sin begets sin. We can even see this in the famous story of the prodigal son (cf Luke 15:11-32). The son first asks for the inheritance, then he runs FAR away, then he squanders the money, then he’s at a low point working on a pig farm where there aren’t even scraps for him to eat. He’s at the bottom point of his life. That’s how sin works—it wears us, it breaks us, it slowly builds up until we suddenly realize how far we have fallen. It rarely happens all in an instant, though.
What is sin? We have lost a sense of sin in today’s climate. Sin is an offense against God. Sometimes people will say “I don’t know how to describe it—I just feel dark inside”. I tell them to go to confession, and afterward they feel much better. That darkness, that ugliness is the fruit of sin. In sinning, Adam and Eve, and all of us when we sin, broke the original harmony: harmony between man and God, between people, and within the person. One way to view sin is just breaking a rule, but there is another deeper reality. We can see in the parable of the merciful father that sin causes exile—the son goes off to a far off land. Part of the inheritance would be to have a part of the family’s land-so the son leaves that entirely behind. We leave the life of heaven, the life of Grace, for our own selfish desires. Sin causes suffering—we can see the great suffering the son endured—starving, unhappy, alone. The Catechism speaks about the idea of a structure of sin—we can lament the woes in society, but ultimately somehow our own infidelities lead to that. The Sacrament of Confession has been underutilized. Why is is that so few come to confession every month? I think our society would be a lot better if each of us went to confession at least every month. I go every week. Are we afraid of growing closer to God? Do we want to keep God at a comfortable distance? Our Lord is calling us to be on fire—to be saints! The more often we go to confession, the more we can say we are cooperating with grace, and the less time we will spend in purgatory. Do not only go to confession when there is a penance service!
Sin causes uncleanness—we can see the son considers himself unclean. He does not even want the father to consider him as a son, but as a hired employee. According to the Mosaic law, Pork was considered unclean and so to work with pigs would never have occurred as a real possibility to a pious Jew.
Sin causes exile—estrangement from God, from one another, from ourselves. Sin causes suffering—not only to those hurt, but suffering within ourselves. Sin causes us to be unclean.
The Angel told St Joseph to name the child Jesus—“because he will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). So often today we want to explain sin away by going to psychologists or taking drugs. Certainly such things have their place, but sin is a reality. Saint John reminds us
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:8-9. I want and need Jesus to save me. So if we say we are without sin, we are saying we do not want Jesus. Jesus came to free us of our sins—really. To free us of our sins. This takes a lot of work on both parts, and if we are serious about this we will be serious about living our faith.
We sin in our thoughts, our words, what we have done, and what we have failed to do. By coming frequently to confession, we do not allow those many venial sins to blind our consciences. The repetition of venial sin engenders vice—the repetition of the same bad acts. This leads to “perverse inclinations which cloud conscience and corrupt the concrete judgment of good and evil” (CCC 1865).
If we allow venial sin to build up, eventually we will be so wounded that falling into mortal sin will become more frequent. Mortal sin of course requires us to go to Confession to be restored to the state of Grace. In mortal sin we are in exile, and we need the Sacrament to restore us. A mortal sin requires grave matter (10 commandments), full knowledge, deliberate consent. One must take into account who is wronged(cf. CCC 1858): skipping Mass on Sunday without a good reason we are basically committing idolatry. By married couples working against conception, they are sinning against their promises they made to God to be open to life. Violence against parents is graver than violence against a stranger. A priest in absolving mortal sins is participating in the resurrection: a mortal sin can only be absolved by the sacrament of confession. A soul with a mortal sin that dies unrepentant of that sin cannot enter into heaven.
When the son returns he expects perhaps his father to say “I told you so!” That’s not what happens. The father has been waiting, and runs to his son. He embraces him warmly. He is full of mercy and palpable joy. Think of soldiers returning home to their families and the physical joy and emotion—that’s what happens here. “‘This son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’” Sin kills, confession brings us back to life. In sinning we become lost and in exile. In returning to confession we are found. Perhaps we think we need to prove ourselves, and we are so ashamed when we sin. We covered up and wait for some time to go to confession. Maybe we figure we can quickly say that sin in the midst of all of our other sins. Really though we should be like this son and simply come acknowledging our need for God’s mercy. The more we allow pride to keep us from God, the more we will be like the older son.
The story ends with the older son who is bitter. Perhaps we have grown accustomed or complacent in living the faith and we are bothered when we see others who are more fervent than us. We should not become bitter or jealous: God has a great treasury awaiting each of His children. Do we declare that some sins are unforgivable or do we rejoice in God’s mercy by ourselves going often to confession and trying to grow in a life of prayer and virtue to overcome vice?
Before he was executed Jacques Fesch went to confession again. This violent criminal had a profound conversion to become a man of God. In his moments of terror he turned to the Blessed Virgin in praying the Rosary. That is a good example to us: frequently going to confession to grow in the life of grace and stay far away from the death that is mortal sin, and to go to the Blessed Mother often. If you are afraid of going to confession, ask the Blessed Mother for the courage. Then remember this parable: when we go to confession and return humbly acknowledging our sins we are warmly returned to the arms of God our Father through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit working through the Sacrament. Heaven rejoices. Thus only God is capable of turning an evil into a cause for celebration.