Bernardo M. Villegas
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Work for Conversion of Criminals

           There is understandably much talk about ruthlessly dealing with drug lords and corrupt people.  These criminals are undermining our society and corrupting especially the youth.  It is not difficult to get parents of young people who have been lured to drug addiction, many of them in the gated subdivisions in Metro Manila, to agree to harsh measures against those who are peddling drugs.  Concerned citizens who lament that billions of pesos, that could otherwise be spent on eradicating poverty, are being stolen by corrupt officials would not mind the death penalty being imposed on these thieves.  Although our indignation is understandable, those of us who claim to be followers of Christ must be reminded that the very reason why He became man and suffered an ignominious death on the Cross was to convert and redeem sinners. 

          Especially during the Jubilee Year of Mercy that ended on November 20, 2016, we had to be open to the possibility that the criminals in our midst could still be converted by grace and can amend their lives.  It is not a coincidence that the prayer that was being recited in all of our Churches in connection with the recent Jubilee Year of Mercy explicitly made reference to public sinners like Zaccheus, Matthew, the adulteress and Mary Magdalene.  As Christians, let us remember, as a case in point, that Christ intervened so that the adulteress would not be stoned to death, as the laws of her times commanded. 

          In the publication entitled “The Name of God is Mercy,” Pope Francis explicitly calls for the conversion of criminals and corrupt people: “May the message of mercy reach everyone and may no one be indifferent to the call to experience mercy.  I direct this invitation to conversion even more fervently to those whose behavior distances them from the grace of God.  I particularly have in mind men and women belonging to criminal organizations of any kind.   For their own good, I beg them to change their lives.  I ask them this in the name of the Son of God who, though rejecting sin, never rejected the sinner.  Do not fall into the terrible trap of thinking that life depends on money and that, in comparison with money, anything else is devoid of value or dignity.  This is nothing but an illusion!”

          I am aware of the fact that there are those who do not believe in the conversion of sinners, who consider religious leaders like Pope Francis as quixotic, unrealistic dreamers.  I have to remind these so-called realists that there can be no lasting change in society unless it starts with the transformation of individuals.  No amount of laws and decrees can lead to a more just and peaceful society unless individual persons are determined to renounce their evil behaviors.  Even the best designed systems of governance will not work if the majority of people in society are not convinced to live virtuous lives.  Evil can only be drowned by an abundance of good.  That is why Pope Francis has no alternative but to extend an invitation to those who either perpetrate or participate in corruption.  In his words, “This festering wound (corruption) is a grave sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance, because it threatens the very foundations of personal and social life.  Corruption prevents us from looking to the future with hope, because its tyrannical greed shatters the plans of the weak and tramples upon the poorest of the poor.  It is an evil that embeds itself into the actions of everyday life and spreads, causing great public scandal.  Corruption is a sinful hardening of the heart that replaces God with the illusion that money is a form of power.  It is a work of darkness, fed by suspicion and intrigue.”

          We should work especially for the conversion of those who are leaders or hold influential positions.  Pope Francis quotes Saint Gregory the Great in reminding us that “the corruption of the best is the worst (corruptio optima pessima in Latin). Whatever religious beliefs or moral systems can be mobilized, let us work for the conversion of the ones who can do most to promote the common good of society, heeding the words of Pope Francis: “This is the opportune moment to change our lives!  This is the time to allow our hearts to be touched!  When faced with evil deeds, even in the face of serious crimes, it is the time to listen to the cry of innocent people who are deprived of their property, their dignity, their feelings and even their very lives.  To stick to the way of evil will only leave one deluded and sad.  True life is something entirely different.  God never tires of reaching out to us.  He is always ready to listen, as I am along with my brother bishops and priests.  All one needs to do is to accept the invitation to conversion and submit oneself to justice during this special tie of mercy offered by the Church.”

          Those of us who are convinced about the power of grace, especially in the Sacrament of Confession, should reach out to people we know who are in these morally dangerous situations and do our best to pray and offer sacrifices for them first.  Then we should have the courage to talk to them in a most discrete and charitable way to amend their lives.  This is one of the most urgent occasions in which we should practice the evangelical command of making fraternal correction to those who are in error.  God wants all souls to be saved, even those who are mired in evil deeds.  God wants to use us as instruments to save them.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.