Many years ago in the town of Grass Valley, California, a raging storm that lasted three days made it virtually impossible to travel. There was no electricity, so Fr. O’Malley was writing his sermon by candlelight. His phone rang and a voice said: “I’m calling from the hospital in Auburn.” We have a terminally ill patient who is asking us to get someone to give him his last rites. Can you come quickly?”
Father O’Malley told the nurse that he would try his best but the storm had made driving nearly impossible. He told her that he would try to be there in two hours. The trip was only 30 miles but it was hard going. It was way past midnight before he saw the lights of the small hospital. They guided him for the last 500 yards. He hoped he had arrived in time.
He was met by the night nurse. She said: “The man I called you about is slipping fast, but he is still coherent. He’s been an alcoholic for years and his liver has finally given out. He’s been here for a couple of weeks this time and hasn’t had one visitor. He lives up in the woods, and no one around here knows much about him. We’ve been treating him for a couple of years, but this time it’s as though he’s reached some personal decision and has given up the fight.”
Fr. O’Malley asked: “What’s the patient’s name?”
“The hospital staff has just been calling him, Tom.” She replied.
Fr. O’Malley entered Tom’s room and introduced himself. Tom said: “If you’re here to give me the Last Rights, let’s get on with it.”
Fr. O’Malley said: “Be patient, Tom” and began the prayers. After Tom said, “Amen”, he seemed to calm down.
“Would you like to go to confession?” Fr. O’Malley asked.
“Absolutely not,” Tom answered. “But I would like to just talk with you a bit before I go.”
They talked for over an hour or so before daylight. Occasionally, Fr. O’Malley would ask Tom again if he would like to go to confession. Tom always declined. After a few more hours and being asked the fourth time, Tom said: “Father, when I was young, I did something that was so bad that I’ve never told anyone about it. It was so bad that I haven’t spent a single day since without thinking about it and reliving the horror.”
“Don’t you think it would be good for you to tell me about it?” Fr. O’Malley asked.
“Even now, I still can’t talk about what I did,” Tom said. “Even to you.”
After being quiet for a while, Tom sadly said, “Okay. It’s too late for anyone to do anything to me now, so I guess I might as well tell you. I worked as a switchman on the railroad all my life, until I retired a few years ago and moved up here to the woods. Thirty-two years, two months and 11 days ago, I was working in Bakersfield on a night kind of like tonight.” Tom’s face became intense as the words began to tumble out. “It happened during a bad winter storm with a lot of rain, 50-mile-an-hour winds and almost no visibility. It was two nights before Christmas and to push away the gloom, the whole yard crew drank all through the swing shift. I was drunker than the rest of them, so I volunteered to go out in the rain and wind and push the switch for the northbound 8:30 freight. I guess I was more drunk than I thought I was because I pushed that switch in the wrong direction. At 45 miles an hour that freight train slammed into a passenger car at the next crossing and killed a young man, his wife and their two daughters. I have had to live with my being the cause of their deaths every day since then.”
After what seemed like an eternity, Fr. O’Malley gently put his hand on Tom’s shoulder and said very quietly, “If I can forgive you, God can forgive you, because in that car were my mother, my father and my two older sisters.”
During this Year of Mercy in the Catholic Church, I offer this true story to prove that no one is beyond the mercy of God.
Never hesitate to accept God’s mercy and remember: “TO LOVE ANOTHER PERSON IS TO SEE THE FACE OF GOD.”