Sunday, May 05, 2013

Four Conversions

Raising of Lazarus, 15th century Russian icon.  The raising of Lazarus, dead four days, stinking and bound up in burial bands, symbolizes the raising of a soul dead in sin to the life of grace.
"...I will have mercy on whom I will, and I will be merciful to whom it shall please me."  Exodus 33:19

Some miracles of mercy that have not quite passed out of living memory:

For Mary's Inheritance, A Parricide and a Blasphemer

On December 19, 1942, 19-year-old Claude Newman of Bovina, Mississippi lay in wait for his grandmother's estranged, abusive husband, Sid Cook at Cook's home.  When Cook entered, Claude shot him to death, took his money and fled.  He was eventually caught, tried and convicted, and sentenced to die in Mississippi's electric chair.  

One night, while awaiting execution, Claude noticed what he thought was a trinket hanging around the neck of another prisoner in his cell block.  When Claude asked him what it was, the other prisoner became angry and embarrassed and threw it on the ground at Claude's feet.  Claude picked it up and looked it over.  It was a Miraculous Medal.  Unable to read or write, and almost totally ignorant about the Christian faith, he did not understand what the medal was or know whose image it bore.  Nevertheless, he felt attracted by it, and decided to put it on.   

It would not be long before Claude's ignorance would begin to be cured.  He was startled out of his sleep by a touch on his wrist, and saw a woman of surpassing beauty standing there.  He was frightened and confused, but she said to him: "If you would like me to be your Mother, and you would like to be my child, send for a priest of the Catholic Church."  Then she vanished, and Claude screamed for a Catholic priest.

The next morning, Fr. Robert O'Leary was called to visit Claude.  Claude told him his incredible story, and then, along with the four other men in his cell block, asked for instruction in the Catholic faith.  The other prisoners helped Claude with his studies, because he was illiterate; his story attracted some religious sisters to the jail, and led to religious instruction for more prisoners.  Soon it became clear that among Claude's instructors in the Faith was Our Lady herself, who continued to visit him and teach him, in advance of his catechism lessons, doctrines that he could not have learned on his own.  Fr. O'Leary became convinced that Our Lady was indeed visiting Claude when she reminded him, through Claude, of a secret vow he had made to her while he was lying in a ditch in Holland in 1940, and which she was still waiting for him to keep.  

One particular prisoner at the jail was not among those who joined Claude in taking religious instructions.  His name was James Hughs, and he was also a convicted murderer awaiting execution.  "This man was the filthiest, most immoral person I had ever come across," said Fr. O'Leary.  "His hatred for God and for everything spiritual defied description."  He had been brought up Catholic, but now absolutely refused the ministrations of a priest.  And he hated Claude with a fierce intensity.  But God had not yet given up on James Hughs.

Finally, the catechism lessons were complete, and Claude Newman received the Sacrament of Baptism on January 16, 1944.  He was scheduled to be executed at five minutes past midnight on January 20, 1944.  Fifteen minutes before he was scheduled to die, he was granted a two-week reprieve by the governor.  Claude was completely heartbroken.  "What have I done wrong these past weeks," he cried, "that God would refuse me my going home?"  Fr. O'Leary suggested to Claude that he offer up every moment of his separation from his heavenly Mother for the conversion of James Hughs.  Claude agreed to this and made the offering with the priest's assistance.  

Claude's separation from his heavenly Mother finally ended on February 4, 1944, when Mississippi's executioner sent a fatal current of electricity through his body.  To the wonder of those present, he had gone to his death like a bridegroom to his wedding, and took his seat on the electric chair as though it were a throne of gladness.

This scene of rejoicing seemed unlikely to be repeated when, three months later, James Hughs was scheduled to meet his end.  He persisted in his hatred of God up until the date set for his execution, and could not be persuaded to so much as kneel down and say an Our Father.  Fr. O'Leary was present at this execution as he had been at Claude Newman's, since state law required a clergyman to witness executions; but he had hidden himself from sight, because Hughs had threatened to blaspheme God if he caught sight of a clergyman.  When he was strapped into the chair and asked if he had any last words, Hughs began to blaspheme anyway.  Then suddenly, he stopped.  He fixed his gaze on a corner of the room, his face the picture of horror, and screamed in terror.  He begged for a priest.  Fr. O'Leary emerged from his hiding place, the room was cleared, and Hughs made his last confession.

When the witnesses were readmitted into the execution chamber, the sheriff asked Hughs what had made him change his mind about seeing a priest.  Hughs said that Claude, the black man whom he had hated so much, was, at that moment, standing over in the corner with the Blessed Mother standing behind him, a hand on each of his shoulders.  "And Claude said to me, 'I offered my death in union with Christ on the Cross for your salvation. She has obtained for you this gift of seeing your place in Hell if you do not repent.' I have been shown my place in Hell, and that's why I screamed."  Hughs then went peacefully to his execution, freed from sin and fortified by the Last Sacraments.

Out of the Blue: Public Enemy No. 1

"Dutch" Schultz, notorious mobster, bootlegger, extortionist and racketeer, was born Arthur Flegenheim in 1901 to German Jewish immigrants.  His mother tried to raise him up in the Jewish faith, but before the age of 20 he was already seriously involved in organized crime.  During the Prohibition era, he made a fortune from the sale and distribution of illegal liquor; after prohibition, he continued to prosper in the numbers racket and extortion.  

The Dutchman was known for his brutality and his ruthlessness; nor was he above turning his own hand to murder.  On one occasion, at a meeting with another gangster and with his lawyer, who was then defending him on tax evasion charges, Schultz accused the other gangster of skimming $70,000 off their extortion racket.  An alcohol-fueled argument ensued, during which the other man admitted to skimming $20,000, to which he considered himself entitled.  Schultz pulled out his pistol, stuck it in the man's mouth, and pulled the trigger.  "It was as simple and undramatic as that," said the lawyer, Dixie Davis -- "just one quick motion of the hand. Dutch Schultz did that murder just as casually as if he were picking his teeth."  Schultz then apologized to the lawyer for having killed someone in front of him.

Dutch Schultz finally went too far even for the other mobsters when he tried to order the assassination of Thomas Dewey, the U.S. Attorney who was prosecuting him for tax evasion.  He had gone to the Mafia Commission for permission to take out Dewey, who was hurting his criminal enterprises; but, fearing the law enforcement backlash that would result from such a hit, the Commission turned him down.  When Schultz failed to accept this decision gracefully, the Commission put out a contract on him in order to prevent a hit on Dewey.  

And so it was that on October 23, 1935, the Dutchman, along with three other mobsters, was gunned down at the Palace Chop House in Newark, New Jersey.  Schultz did not die immediately, but dragged himself back to his table and asked for an ambulance.  He was transported to the hospital and underwent emergency surgery.  

Schultz is said to have previously investigated the claims of the Catholic faith during one of his tax evasion trials.  He is said to have decided to convert, motivated by the belief that Jesus Christ had kept him out of prison, and also by a desire to ingratiate himself to Italian mobster Charles "Lucky" Luciano.  Whatever the case may have been, Schultz, who only hours earlier had been engaged in planning crimes -- perhaps even the murder of a U.S. Attorney -- summoned a Catholic priest, apparently out of the blue, and expressed his desire to die a Catholic.  He received the Sacrament of Baptism and the last rites from Fr. Cornelius McInerney and died in the bosom of the Church on the evening of October 24, 1935 at the age of 34.  He is buried at Gate of Heaven Catholic cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.

The Commandant of Auschwitz

Without a doubt, this is the most offensive of all these conversion stories, from a human point of view.  Human pusillanimity tempts us to think that here, God's Mercy clashes with His Justice.  All of these stories are about men who were destroyers of life; but this story is about a destroyer of peoples, a man with the blood of millions on his conscience, who murdered on an industrial scale.  And it begins with the kindness of jailers and the ringing of monastery bells.

Rudolf Höss was born in 1900 in Baden-Baden to parents who gave him a strict -- perhaps even straitjacketed -- Catholic upbringing.  When he was a teenager, he became convinced that his priest had violated the Sacramental seal by repeating to his father something he had accused himself of in confession; he soon stopped going to confession altogether and ultimately fell away from the Faith.  After serving with distinction in World War I, he became involved in political extremism and found his way into the Nazi party in 1922.  He joined the ranks of the SS at the invitation of Heinrich Himmler and was assigned, first to Dachau, then to Sachsenhausen, and finally was appointed commandant at Auschwitz in April of 1940.  There he lived in a villa with his wife and children and presided over the implementation of the Final Solution, of which Auschwitz was chosen as the locus.  Through study and experimentation, and sustained by his fanatical devotion to the Nazi ideology, Höss turned his camp into a powerhouse of genocide, dealing out death at the rate of thousands of human beings per hour.  By the time he was replaced as commandant in December of 1943, he had presided over the deaths of about 3 million people.  Between May and July of 1944, Höss returned to the camp and added to this grim total by supervising the liquidation of nearly half a million Hungarian Jews.

Höss evaded capture for nearly a year after Germany's defeat, until he was finally taken by British troops.  He testified at the Nuremberg trials, and was turned over to the Polish government to be tried by its Supreme National Tribunal.  On April 2, 1947, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.  He waived his right to appeal for clemency.

While in the custody of the Poles, Höss had been treated with kindness and decency, expressions of living faith that filled him with deep shame.  Then, while he waited in solitary confinement for the carrying out of his sentence, the finger of God on Höss' forehead: the sound of bells ringing from the local Carmelite monastery.  There is power in the ringing of bells, blessed and baptized and consecrated to the service of Catholic worship; it is no wonder the world in our day has declared war on church bells.  How hell is despoiled by the ringing of Church bells.  Rudolf Höss, the Monster of Auschwitz, the Commandant of Death, guilty of the blood of millions, awaiting his own death, heard Church bells, and called for a Catholic priest.

At first Höss' request was not heeded, so he repeated it in writing.  A priest was finally found who could speak German: Fr. Wladislaw Lohn, S.J., the Jesuit Provincial of Cracow.  Twenty-seven of his priests had suffered in Auschwitz; twelve had died.  Fr. Lohn is said to have approached the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy at the very convent in which St. Faustina lived to ask them for their prayers before undertaking his delicate and difficult mission to the great tormentor of Poland and of his own Jesuit brethren.  

Fr. Lohn met with Rudolf Höss on April 10, 1947 and spent several hours with him.  At the end of this lengthy interview, Höss repented of his apostasy, made a formal profession of faith, made his confession and received absolution.  The next day, Fr. Lohn returned and gave Höss Holy Communion, which he received on his knees, weeping.  On April 12th, Höss sent the following statement to the state prosecutor:
My conscience compels me to make the following declaration. In the solitude of my prison cell I have come to the bitter recognition that I have sinned gravely against humanity. As Commandant of Auschwitz I was responsible for carrying out part of the cruel plans of the 'Third Reich' for human destruction. In so doing I have inflicted terrible wounds on humanity. I caused unspeakable suffering for the Polish people in particular. I am to pay for this with my life. May the Lord God forgive one day what I have done.
On April 16, 1947, Rudolf Höss was taken to Auschwitz and hanged by the neck from a gallows specially erected there for the purpose.  He died for his unspeakable crimes, having been first snatched from the jaws of hell, all because of the kindness of his jailers and the ringing of church bells.  

How great and unfathomable are the mercies of God.

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