Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Transformative Power Of Forgiveness

It was a night that would change the lives of Tom Hayes and Ron McClary forever.

On the evening of December 18, 1979, Officer Tom Hayes received a call to check on two teenage boys who were causing a disturbance in front of a convenience store. Upon arriving, he found 16 year old Ron McClary and his friend who had taken LSD and were harassing the store owner and customers. When Officer Hayes attempted to arrest them, the two teenagers resisted and attacked the policeman. In the course of the struggle, Ron McClary pulled out a gun and shot Officer Hayes. The shooting left him paralyzed below the waist.

The next morning, Officer Hayes’s parish priest and close friend, Fr. Kevin Lutz, stopped by the hospital to visit and pray for him. Fr. Lutz asked him if he had forgiven the young man for shooting him. Talking about the incident years later, Officer Hayes recalled, “I thought I was dying, and I didn’t want to go before Almighty God with hatred in my heart. I prayed I would go to heaven and that he would too.”

The young shooter, Ron McClary, was tried as an adult charged with felonious assault and served 24 years in prison.

As a result of the shooting, Officer Hayes endured many complications. He never was able to regain feeling below his waist and, eventually, one of his legs would be amputated. Through it all he prayed for Ron McClary that he would come to faith in Jesus and become Catholic. However, he never saw the young shooter again and did not know what had become of him.

When Officer Hayes passed away on January 20, 2011 at the age of 61, his friend Fr Kevin Lutz celebrated his funeral Mass. Afterwards, he decided he would find out what had happened to Ron McClary and pay him a visit. Eventually, he was able to track him down to an apartment in Columbus, Ohio. Fr Lutz discovered that Ron had developed multiple sclerosis and was living in utter poverty.

During his visit, he let Ron know that Officer Hayes had forgiven him and had been praying for him. Fr Lutz continued to visit, giving him spiritual counseling and comforting him. Eventually, Ron asked to be baptized and they made arrangements to have an ambulance bring him to church so that he could receive his first Holy Communion.

Throughout this process, Fr Lutz had also been in contact with Officer Hayes’s widow, Mary Hayes. He let her know that he had been visiting him and that Tom’s prayers that Ron would convert to Catholicism had been answered. Fr. Lutz asked Mary if she would attend Ron’s first Holy Communion.

She was not quite sure she was ready to see her husband’s shooter, much less forgive him. As she put it, “[When Fr. Lutz called me]...I asked him if this was my test as a Christian, because I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.”

However, she did agree to go to church for Ron’s first Holy Communion. Seeing him in the aisle, she walked up to him, placed her hand on his arm and whispered, “I forgive you.”

During the homily for that Mass, Fr. Lutz said, “In heaven, we will all be perfect friends, and on Earth, Jesus asks us to get ready for that now. That’s why Jesus tells us things like forgive, love your enemies, bless them and all kinds of things. Jesus asks us to carry our cross. He asks us to forgive, and we also have to be sorry for our own sins.”

The story of Officer Hayes gives us an inspiring example of the healing power of love and forgiveness. After suffering so much because of a random act of violence, Tom Hayes could have decided to hate Ron McClary. He could have chosen to spend the rest of his life resenting him for taking away his ability to walk. But he chose another way. He chose the way that Jesus points out to us in the gospel. Rather than hatred and bitterness, he chose to love his enemy and pray for him. He decided not to spend his life stewing in resentment but to let go of his anger and live in peace and serenity through forgiving the one who had harmed him.

Forgiveness is not easy. We do not reach the point of being able to love our enemies, forgive those who hurt us and pray for our persecutors without much soul searching and prayer. Depending on how deeply we have been injured, it may take years of consciously deciding every day to choose love over hate and peace over resentment. And it is quite impossible without prayer. Only the love of God can empower us to love our enemy.

It also requires humility. None of us is perfect. In fact, it is likely that all of us have hurt someone at some point in our lives and have needed to ask for forgiveness. It is even more likely that we have harmed people and do not even know it. When we realize just how in need of forgiveness we are ourselves, it becomes easier for us to extend forgiveness to others. When we understand just how much God has forgiven us, then we find the strength to love our enemies and pray that our persecutors themselves will know the merciful love of our Heavenly Father.

When we die, none of us can stand before Almighty God with hatred in our hearts and expect to be saved. No matter how we may have been hurt - no matter how deep and painful the wounds we carry are - we need to find a way to forgive, if only for the sake of our peace of mind. In God, we can find the strength to do so by deciding every minute of every day to forgo revenge and to refuse to cherish grudges. When we do so, the love and peace of God’s Holy Spirit will flood our hearts. Then we will truly be daughters and sons of our Heavenly Father who “makes the sun rise on the bad and the good and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.” 

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