“For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again;
but the wicked are overthrown by calamity.” – Proverbs 24:16
As we all know, we are all sinners. Our human nature causes us to make mistakes every single day as we sin against our neighbors and sin against God. It is just part of who we are. As Proverbs tells us, even the most righteous man will fall seven times. However, we should not become complacent about our sin and use our fallen nature as an excuse to not strive for holiness. Satan is the one who likes to tell us that we should just give up because we messed up one too many times, but Satan is a liar. Like the righteous man, we should always rise up again and try to do better because our good and gracious God tells us we can.
One of the greatest gifts of God’s mercy is that, as long as we are still breathing, we always have another chance. He is so forgiving and so loving that he’s always ready to look past our mistakes to help us try again. Yes, sin has consequences and most of the time those consequences are messy and unavoidable, but God can turn anything bad into the most beautiful good if we allow Him to work in and through us.
In order to better understand how this works for us, let’s take a walk through history and see how some of the greatest people in Church history started out as some of the worst sinners before they allowed God to take over.
King David was a complex character, like most of us. He wasn’t all bad. More often than not, he was righteous and just. However, he was a sinner. He took his eyes off God and allowed the sin of lust to consume him. He coveted his General Uriah’s wife and had an affair with her. After she became pregnant, David had Uriah killed. Lust and murder are two pretty big sins and one might be tempted to throw in the towel after all that, but David lamented his actions and cried out to God for forgiveness. You can read David’s song of lament in Psalm 51 and refer to it whenever you feel terrible about your own sins. After everything, how did God respond to David’s regret? He made him a great king and allowed him to be part of the lineage of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Although Mary Magdalene is sometimes described as a prostitute, we don’t know too many details about the specific sins she committed, but Luke tells us that Jesus cast seven demons out of her (Luke 8:2). If someone is described as needing to have seven demons cast out, we can imagine that whatever was going on with Mary wasn’t good. After He rid her of the demons, Mary became quite a devout disciple of Jesus. Her sins were not held against her and she was rewarded for her conversion. She was with Jesus until His dying breath and had the privilege and honor of being the first one to see Him after His resurrection (Matthew 28:1-10).
After promising Jesus he would never deny Him, Peter went on to deny Jesus three times. Not only did he deny his beloved friend, but he did it at the most excruciating time of his friend’s life. Imagine denying your best friend or spouse at the time he or she needed you the most. That’s what Peter did. Jesus is so loving and so forgiving that, despite knowing how Peter would betray Him, He still made him the Church’s first pope. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it,” (Matthew 16:18). Despite Peter’s sins, God worked through him and enabled him to convert 3,000 people to Christianity after one sermon (Acts 2:14-42).
Before St. Paul was St. Paul, he was Saul, a persecutor of Christians. In other words, his job was to go out and find Christians and murder them. In Paul’s case, he actually thought he was doing the right thing and doing God’s will by killing Christians. He wasn’t aware of his sin at all until God blinded him for his evil deeds. Once his eyes were opened and he converted to Christianity himself, St. Paul became one of the greatest disciples of Jesus of all time. He changed his mission from finding and murdering Christians to going to the ends of the earth to convert others to Christianity. St. Paul also went on to become one of the most prolific authors of the New Testament by allowing God to speak through Him.
Perhaps most of you know the story of St. Augustine (354-430 AD), but it is worth repeating in the context of sinners becoming saints. Although he was raised by a devoutly Christian mother, St. Monica, Augustine fell under the influence of paganism and Manichaeism, which deals with good and evil in a dualistic way, believing that God is not omnipotent. He fell in with a sexually promiscuous crowd, kept a lover out of wedlock for 15 years, and had a child with her. When he went to Milan to teach, he met St. Ambrose, who was known as a great Christian orator. Ambrose had a huge influence on Augustine and eventually converted him to Christianity. Still, Augustine famously prayed during his conversion, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” That’s a man who wants to hang on to his sin despite knowing God’s will for him. Eventually, St. Augustine became a priest and was then appointed the Bishop of Hippo. He authored many great works, which we still read and use today, and he is now one of the greatest saints honored by the Church.
St. Mary of Egypt (died sometime in the 5th or 6th century) is a woman you may not have heard of before. Mary ran away from home at the age of 12 to the big city of Egypt. Her appetite for lust and sex was so insatiable that she made it a point to collect as many sexual partners as she could. Even when offered money by her conquests, she would refuse it because she did it out of pure enjoyment. To further her quest for seduction, she joined a group of pilgrims going to the Holy Land and paid for her place on the boat by providing sexual favors to the pilgrims. When she arrived in Jerusalem, she had a profound conversion experience and immediately went to the monastery of St. John the Baptist to confess her sins and receive the Holy Eucharist. She then went on to live the rest of her life as a penitent. Again, her reward was eternal life in heaven with God and canonization into sainthood.
Our final example for today is Blessed Bartolo Longo (1841-1926). Bartolo went away to school in Naples where he not only became anti-Catholic, but began to practice Spiritualism and Occultism. Going further, he eventually joined a satanic cult and became a satanic priest. He described his life at this time as being filled with anxiety, paranoia, depression, and many other mental and physical health ailments. A friend convinced him to abandon Satanism and took him to see a Dominican priest. This priest worked with Bartolo on a devotion to the rosary, through which Bartolo was ultimately converted to Catholicism. He then moved to Pompeii, which was rapidly declining in the Faith, and he worked to catechize the people there. As a gift, he received a badly damaged painting of Our Lady of the Rosary and he used that painting to create a shrine, which today is called The Basilica of our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary of Pompeii. He also went on to write a 15-Saturday devotion to Our Lady of the Rosary, which I can personally attest to as an absolutely stunning devotion. He now enjoys the title of Blessed for the work he has done in the conversion of other souls and in his work in glorifying God.
I hope that reflecting on these few short stories of men and women who turned from evil and sin to truth, beauty, and goodness has inspired you. No matter where you find yourself in your struggles with sin, you are not beyond hope for transformation and conversion. These stories show us how God can do wondrous things in the darkest of hearts and he can bring about good in any situation. Pray to ask God to reveal His will for your life and then be open to receiving His transformative grace.
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