In the year 1887, long before social media and 24-hour news cycles, a triple homicide gripped the attention of the entire country of France. After an extensive manhunt and a series of dramatic court proceedings that the Parisian newspapers ravenously covered, a certain Henri Pranzini was found guilty of the murder of three women. The penalty was death, and Pranzini was scheduled for prompt execution on the morning of August 31st, 1887.
Amazingly, the buzz surrounding this famous criminal’s imminent demise managed to reach even the tiny little cloistered Carmelite convent in Lisieux, where a young religious sister read about Pranzini’s fate in the daily paper, and decided to do something about it.
Why, you might ask? Why would this little nun think she should help this notorious, convicted criminal?
Well, because she knew that there was still time — there was still time (even for this man who had murdered three women in cold blood!)…to change his mind!
That nun happened to be Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, much better known as St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower. What Thérèse feared most of all was that Henri Pranzini would go to his death without repenting of his crimes… and so she “employed all means imaginable” and “offered to God all the infinite merits” of Jesus for his conversion…
In other words, she started to pray intensely that he would change his mind!
Sure enough, as the story goes, at just the last moment, Pranzini reportedly turned to the chaplain upon the scaffold, begged for a crucifix, and proceeded to kiss the sacred wounds of Jesus three times. After this, he surrendered himself to the guillotine.
St. Thérèse read all about this in the paper the following day, and her heart was overwhelmed with joy:
Henry Pranzini had changed his mind!!!!!
Our Gospel this Sunday gives us one of Jesus’ shortest and most obvious parables. A man has two sons that he asks to go work in his vineyard — the first son says “I will not go” but then later changes his mind, while the other promptly says “Yes, sir!” …but then doesn’t bother to go at all.
“Which of the two did his father’s will?” Jesus asks.
The answer should be obvious: The first son, though he initially blew his dad off, eventually got around to it, while the second never did, despite his good intentions.
When the chief priests and elders answer Jesus’ question correctly and say: “The first son” — Jesus turns the parable into a direct rebuke: “Amen I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you!”
The lesson seems to be this: People really can change. People really can repent, and be transformed by the preaching of the Kingdom! We shouldn’t write people off — even if they’re terrible sinners. God’s grace, bought with the Blood of Christ, can still work miracles!
There’s still time for them to change their minds!!! There’s still time for them to listen to their Heavenly Father’s will and go into His Vineyard!
That’s what St.Thérèse — whose feast day falls on Sunday this year — understood so clearly, and it’s what moved her to intercede for that murderer on death row! She knew that its wasn’t too late for him — and by extension, it’s not too late for ANY of us!
You are a beloved son, a beloved daughter of the Father — and He is inviting you to go work in the vineyard. No matter where you are at — no matter what you’ve done — you are not disqualified. St.Thérèse wants all everyone here to know: There’s still time for you to change your mind!
Now maybe we think: “Well, that’s easy for you to say, Thérèse! You’re a SAINT…no wonder you’re so confident! What bad stuff could YOU have possibly done in your life? You don’t understand how big of a sinner I AM!”
If that’s you — if you find St. Thérèse sort of unrelatable and too “saintly” or “perfect” — then listen to what she has to say here:
“Even though I had on my conscience ALL THE SINS THAT CAN BE COMMITTED, I would go, my heart broken with sorrow, and throw myself into Jesus’ arms, for I know how much He loves the prodigal child who returns to Him.”
That is just insane.
Even if Thérèse was guilty of ALL SINS that could EVER be committed, she’d still have confidence that if she only changed her mind, and threw herself into the arms of His Mercy, He would receive her back.
Need more evidence?
Don’t worry there’s more:
“Really, tell them… that if I had committed ALL POSSIBLE CRIMES, I would always have the same confidence. I feel that this whole multitude of offenses would be like a drop of water thrown into a fiery furnace.”
Do we have this kind of insane confidence in the Mercy of God?
Remember that St. Thérèse is a Doctor of the Church! — This teaching of hers means that you can start being free from your sins right now. You can resolve RIGHT NOW to put it all away, to begin again, to start afresh!
…To get your marriage right with the Catholic Church. To stop crossing the line with your boyfriend, your girlfriend, or your fiancé. To quit turning to the bottle, or to food, or to pixels for comfort. To forgive and let go. To choose patience and humility. To give up all the gossip and lying. To empty yourself as Jesus emptied Himself, becoming obedient…even unto death, death on a Cross!
The beautiful truth is that each and every one of us is only a SINGLE good, sincere, contrite confession away from being completely and totally back in God’s perfect grace.
There is nobody hopeless. Nobody too far. Nobody so sinful or so lost.
…NOBODY… who can’t change their mind, and choose to love God right now.
The devil wants you to feel trapped! But Jesus wants you to be confident! Not in yourself, of course, but in His Mercy! We know that Jesus took our place and died on the Cross to make this kind of insane confidence possible…
That’s what that second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is all about… Even though He was God, Jesus didn’t regard equality with God something to be grasped at, so he emptied himself… taking the form of a slave, and died upon the Cross… he died the death our sins deserved!!!
So now, it doesn’t matter if you’ve lived your whole life up to this point as a sinner, an atheist, an agnostic, an addict, an adulterer, a MURDERER even! — if you only change your mind, repent, confess that Jesus Christ is Lord… then God in His Mercy will receive you back *SNAP* just like that.
This can happen even if you happen to put it off until the final moments of your life, until you’re on your deathbed!!!
Think of the good thief on the cross next to Jesus: In his last gasp, he turns to Christ and says: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus promises him PARADISE… After refusing God for decades, here at the very end, he changes his mind…and wins everything. It’s an eternal VICTORY!
Now, does this mean we should put off conversion until our deathbed? Does the infinite Mercy of God give us permission to have as much sinful fun as possible while we still can, up to the very last minute? Saint Paul once put the question this way: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”
His answer is clear: “By no means!”
Absolutely not! That’s called presumption! And it’s a huge trap because we don’t know when our life will be demanded of us!
Another pitfall to avoid would be this: To live your whole life actively striving for holiness, doing your very best to follow God, going to Church week in and week out — saying “Yessir, I go!” to the Father… but then in the final hour, give in to temptation, harden your heart, and despair of God’s mercy… What do you think will happen?
“Which of the two did his father’s will?” Jesus asks …The lifelong sinner who turned good, or the lifelong saint who turned bad?
Does this seem unfair to you?
If so, then listen again to the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel:
“Hear now, house of Israel:
Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?
When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.
But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed,
and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life;
since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed,
he shall surely live, he shall not die.”
One of the most powerful and memorable moments of my priesthood came when I got a call to go visit a very sick man on his deathbed one late Sunday afternoon.
His name was Mel.
It was a 40 minute drive to go visit Mel, and truth be told… I didn’t really want to go. I had already spent most of my energy celebrating mass earlier that morning, and I was really wiped out….but, I forced myself to make the trip. When I arrived, I casually entered the man’s room, and we started to talk. I had no clue about his background…No idea who he was or what his religious history looked like. I just knew I got called to come visit a dying Catholic who apparently wanted the Last Rites. He peacefully and beautifully received the sacraments, and in my mind, everything was more or less normal. Nothing out of the ordinary…
But while all of this was happening, his family… his wife and his son who were there with me in the room… were VERY clearly shocked and bewildered at everything that was happening in front of them.
Afterwards, I came to find out that up to that point, Mel had refused on SEVERAL occasions… (I think his wife said something like 10 separate times) … to have a priest come visit him.
Each time he emphatically said “No.”
Turned out, Mel had been away from the Church for a pretty long time — in fact, he’d been hurt and burned by the Church in the past unfortunately — and so he didn’t WANT a priest to come anywhere near him.
And yet here… at the end… as he lay dying after a long battle with cancer… this beloved son of God… this baptized Catholic man, decided to change his mind. And he allowed Jesus to come and encounter Him in the Sacraments!
This sent shockwaves through his whole family. They’re still talking about it. I’m still thinking about it! Naturally-speaking, it simply didn’t make sense. Something supernatural happened. God’s grace triumphed. And not only in Mel’s life! — His son, too, got right with the Church and he is now practicing his faith.
What a beautiful gift! What a sign for us all! It’s not unlike Henri Pranzini, the murderer, who at the last second grabbed that crucifix and kissed it three times before going to the guillotine.
It’s proof that anyone and everyone — sinners big and small — can always change their mind.
And God will not refuse them if they do. — He will heal them, redeem them… and say to them: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into my joy. Enter into my vineyard.”
So ask yourself:
Where do I still need to change my mind? — What’s stopping you?