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NO ONE IS TOO FAR GONE FOR GOD. Regardless of how many poor choices you’ve made, how many people you’ve hurt or how you’ve broken the laws of God and man, God is still willing to welcome you back with open arms if you sincerely ask His forgiveness and try to change your ways. Don’t believe it? Take the saints as an example. Christian art has done the saints no favors. Whether in marble or in plaster, on canvas or on a laminated holy card, we see saints who are blissful and pure, who appear incapable of ever uttering a harsh word, let alon spending years living like dirty, rotten scoundrels. In other words, most depictions of saints make holiness look easy. It’s not.

A conversion experience is not magic; it is only the first step in a lifetime of striving to grow in virtue and conform one’s unruly, rebellious will to the will of God. All that is hard to do. But the history of our world is full of sinners who turned their lives around to become saints officially canonized by the Church—and people who, with the help of God’s grace, managed to climb out of the downward spiral toward which their lives and souls were heading.

Some of the examples are well known. There’s St. Paul, who was responsible for the murder of many early Christians before his dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus. And St. Augustine of Hippo led a life of arrogant pride and sexual immorality before offering his mind, heart and soul to God, thanks in part to the Letters of St. Paul and the prayers of his mother, St. Monica.

There are also many dramatic stories that are littleknown, but that give powerful witness to a person’s ability to change.

The Embezzler Who Became a Saint

Visitors to Rome will know St. Callixtus (died 222) as San Callisto, the patron of one of the Eternal City’s most famous catacombs. But it’s not likely that tour guides will say anything about his unsavory past.

Callixtus was a Christian slave whose master decided to open a kind of bank where his fellow Christians could keep their money. The master put Callixtus in charge of the bank. He couldn’t have made a worse choice. Callixtus was so careless in his investment decisions that he lost virtually all the depositors’ money. The rest of the money found its way into Callixtus’ pocket.

Afraid of what his irate master might do to him, Callixtus ran away, but was caught, brought back to Rome and imprisoned. Following an incompetent attempt to recover some of the money he had lost, Callixtus caused a public riot, which got him sentenced to slave labor in the mines of Sardinia. There he would have stayed until he died if the Roman emperor had not, unexpectedly, issued a general amnesty for all Christian prisoners.

When Callixtus turned up in Rome again, Pope St. Victor I took responsibility for him. In the spirit of charity tempered by prudence, the Pope found Callixtus a little house far outside the city walls and gave him a stipend. Victor also took to visiting Callixtus. In a short time, the embezzler and brawler showed signs of genuine repentance— so much so that he was ordained a deacon, then a priest, and was given management of the Christian catacomb we know today as San Callisto. In 217 the clergy of Rome elected Callixtus pope. Five years later, he died a martyr.

Callixtus’ martyrdom and veneration as a saint is something no one who knew the old Callixtus would have predicted. And Callixtus had Pope Victor to thank. Good shepherd that he was, Victor sought out the lost sheep. And Callixtus, moved by Victor’s kindness and patience, and touched by God’s grace, responded and turned his back on his old, sinful life.

A Life of Wealth, Sex and Vanity

Blessed Angela of Foligno (c.1248-1309) was beautiful, wealthy, and vain. As a rich man’s wife she wallowed in luxury. Her passions were expensive clothes and flashy jewels, extravagant meals and rare wines. She dressed and acted in ways that would provoke envy among women and sexual desire among men. When she was not indulging herself, she spent hours gossiping with her friends and maligning her neighbors.

In her autobiography Angela discloses that in 1285 she did something so bad that for the first time in her life she began to live in fear of Hell. Her biographers speculate that Angela committed adultery, and given the intensity of her guilt and shame that seems likely.

Near despair, she prayed to St. Francis of Assisi to help her. As Angela prayed the saint appeared to her. “Sister,” St. Francis said, “if you would have asked me sooner I would have complied with your request sooner. Nonetheless, your request is granted.” That same day Angela offered a sincere confession to a priest.

As she stepped from the shadowy interior of the church into the bright sunlight of the piazza, Angela resolved to begin a new life. She sold her fine clothes and jewels to relieve the suffering of Foligno’s poor. After the death of her husband, she gave away all her wealth, associated herself with the Franciscans, and with a handful of other holy women dedicated herself to tending the poor and the sick.

Blessed Angela’s life teaches us a timeless lesson about our weakness and God’s mercy. All that He requires is that we repent and make a sincere effort to do better in the future.

 

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