It may seem too good to be true that a last minute appeal to God’s mercy could work. But God’s mercy is in fact so good and so true that it does work, and we see it work in the Gospel of Luke:
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
We don’t know for certain what crimes were committed by the two men crucified next to Jesus, and none of the evangelists records any good deeds they may have done. The second criminal, by this one profound act at his hour of death, is granted eternal salvation by Jesus. And what makes his actions so profound (and yet so simple)? He asked Jesus for mercy. He trusted that Jesus would show him mercy. And he also showed Jesus mercy, for at that moment when Jesus had been beaten, mocked, stripped, and nailed to a cross, when he had been abandoned by nearly all those he loved, this criminal said to Jesus in effect, “I believe in you. Thank you for making this sacrifice for me. May it not be in vain. In spite of all my sins and all my misery, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” And that day, Jesus rewarded that repentant sinner, and he was with the Lord in paradise.
There is a similar account from The Story of a Soul, the autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux. Saint Therese (when she was fourteen) experienced a strong desire to pray for the conversion of a poor sinner. Being a great saint, she boldly decided that she would pray for someone who had done something very bad, and that she would ask God for a sign that this person had been saved. (1) She heard about a criminal named Henri Pranzini who was condemned to die for “several brutal murders,” and who had not been to Confession and was by all accounts unrepentant. Saint Therese prayed fervently for Pranzini’s salvation and for a sign, and God “answered her to the letter.” Saint Therese read a newspaper account of Pranzini’s execution:
“He had gone to the scaffold without Confession or absolution and was being led to the block by the executioner when he suddenly turned around. The priest had been holding out a crucifix to him, and as if moved by some inspiration, he had seized it and kissed the Sacred Wounds three times. This was my sign, and it touched me very much, since it had been the sight of the Blood flowing from one of those very Wounds that had given me my thirst for souls. I had wanted to give them His Precious Blood to drink to wash their sins away, and here was my “first-born” pressing his lips to His Wounds. What a wonderful answer! After this, my desire to save souls grew day by day. Our Lord seemed to be whispering to me, “Give me to drink,” (John 4:7), as He did to the woman of Samaria; and so, hoping to quench His thirst, I poured out His Blood on Souls and offered them to Him, refreshed with the dew of Calvary, exchanging love for love.” (2)
These stories are powerful reminders that we should not lose hope for the departed, even if we know their sins or their unbelief. For we do not know how they may have responded to God’s grace working in their souls at the hour of death. What we do know is that God in his wisdom empowers us to help in the work of saving souls, and that our prayers are pleasing to Jesus, for he hears them and uses them to lead lost souls back to him, even when all hope seems lost. How good and gracious is Jesus, how rich in mercy!
(1) Saint Therese did not demand a sign from the Lord, saying she would trust that Pranzini was saved even without a sign. But she humbly asked for one as an encouragement in her work. A great saint rewarded for her trust by our merciful Father.
(2) The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, p.55-56.
Photos: Left: Henri Pranzini, Right: Saint Therese at age 13 (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).