Several years ago, as I finished a talk to a large group of New Jersey public school principals, a very big man walked up to me, smiled and said gently, “Father, would you accept a bit of advice from a layman?” I said I would, of course. He responded, “We’re not supposed to fight evil with anger and violence. There’s only one way that evil of any kind will be disarmed and converted: we have to smother it with love.”
And then he pressed something hard and angular into the palm of my right hand and said, “Please take this crucifix as a reminder of Jesus and of me. He conquered evil and death only with love, and he told us to do the same.”
At that time, I had been a priest for more than 30 years, and here was this stranger, a layman, as he said, suggesting not so subtly that I had somehow been missing the central doctrine of Jesus’ teaching. He was reflecting back to me that there had been some angry righteousness and vengeance in the talk I had just given about the sexual abuse of children and not enough of unconditional love like that of Jesus.
It turned out that the stranger was actually a famous star of West Coast TV and had no connection with religious broadcasting. The humble crucifix he gave me is only 3-or-so inches high, made of rough wood, and has pasted on it a Byzantine picture of Jesus on his cross. It’s been on my bedroom night table ever since, not as a charm or even a sacramental, but simply as a reminder that the only force that Jesus authorized his followers to use is the force of love as unconditional as we can make it.
But — does that mean that we are to love serial murderers, drug pushers and exploiters of the innocent? I know on the one hand what I feel about that, but I remember too that it was a very angry Jesus who turned over the tables of the crooked money-changers in the temple while whipping them with knotted cords. Then again, I am also certain, from all else he said and did, that we must continue trying to meet all conflicts, all personal attacks, all anger and evil intentions that come our way with a love and compassion that alone can ultimately conquer evil and help the evil-doer henceforth to choose what is right and good.
During the days that I was writing this homily, I chanced to speak with a man who had just been to the funeral of a man with whom he had once worked in the same financial corporation. Some years before his death, the deceased person had cleverly stolen from him a substantial amount of money. Once a very close and trusted friend, he never apologized, never admitted his crime. His victim told me that ever since he discovered what had been done to him, he struggled with his Christian obligation to forgive and found it very difficult to do. He said that he became haunted by Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies,” and tried to squeeze out of those words every ounce of meaning they contained.
A while before the death and funeral, it all became much clearer to him and led to a conversion. He was still thinking over how he would go about telling his defrauder that he forgave him, when the man died. My friend went to his funeral as a way of letting him know he was forgiven.
That’s taking Jesus and his teachings seriously. It left my friend in peace, a peace, he said, he could never otherwise have attained.
To all of you who are participating in this Mass, I wish peace, deep and lasting, and also the faith and the courage to do or say what you must in order to achieve it.