Eternal life in the balance

By Father Joseph Breighner
A prison warden was once quoted as saying, “We used to have a better class of criminal.” To illustrate his point, allow me to share a couple stories.
Recently, I’ve become friends with Jack, an executive of a major fuel company. Among other things, this company provides gasoline to many convenience stores. One evening, he asked, “Father, do you want to see an execution?” I replied, “Not particularly,” but my interest was aroused.
As we all know, virtually every store has a number of video cameras. Jack had downloaded the video from one of the cameras onto his phone. There on the screen stood two men. One was pumping five or six bullets into the chest of the other, standing next to him. I had just witnessed my first execution; I pray that it will be the last. I was told that the cashier working that particular evening quit the next day. I think he made a good decision.
What amazed me even more is that, as I watched this video for just a few seconds, I was not shocked. We hear so much of crime and shootings, they cease to surprise us. And while I rarely go the movies or watch violent TV shows, I’ve been exposed to enough violence on screen. The media can anesthetize us, but that’s a topic for another column.
That execution, however, reminded me of another story, one I was told never to share. Since it occurred more than four decades ago, I feel it’s safe to tell now.
A priest received a phone call at the rectory late one evening. The caller asked if he would come to anoint someone. The priest agreed, and the caller said that he would pick up the priest.
As the priest got into the car, the man seated behind the priest put a blindfold over the priest’s eyes. The driver said, “Father, you will not be hurt. It’s just important to do this.”
The car drove around for what seemed like the longest time, and then stopped in front of a house. The priest was led inside, and his blindfold was removed. There, sitting before him, was a man tied to a chair.
The driver of the car said, “Father we’d like you to hear his confession, and give him the last rites.” The priest then realized that the man before him was about to be executed. He heard the man’s confession, then anointed him. Then the priest was driven back to the rectory, and told not to tell anyone about it.
In the first story, a man executed another man. I don’t know if the murderer believed in God or not.
In the second story, the men wanted to end a man’s earthly life, but they didn’t want to destroy his chance at eternal life. They were a “better class of criminals.” While their behavior hardly reflects the “gold standard” for behavior based on faith in God, at least it had some effect. Some of our canonized saints had killed others earlier in their lives. Even a little faith can grow into heroic faith.
I presume no one reading this has executed anyone. In fact, I’m willing to bet that your faith in God has led you to lead lives of profound love and caring.
As one priest put it, “There’s so much good in the worst of us, and so much that’s wrong with the best of us, that it keeps any of us from judging the rest of us.”
Belief in God may not always bring out the best in us, but it can at least keep us from acting out the worst in us. 

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.