In 1947, twenty-year old Jim Townsend shot and killed his nineteen-year old wife Alice, who was six months pregnant with his twin children. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. After several years in prison and having established a well-earned reputation as an extremely violent criminal, Jim heard of an opportunity to be transferred to a lesser security prison. To increase his chances of being selected, Jim decided to fake a religious conversion with the hopes of reducing his sentence for good behaviour, and to pass himself off as a reformed inmate. He was transferred, and eventually his efforts led to him becoming the sacristan for the prison chaplain, Fr. Walsh.

However, Jim got More than he Bargained for.

Somewhere along the line, his fake conversion became real. He was released in 1967 after spending twenty years in prison. In 1970, he approached the Capuchin order, an offshoot of St. Francis’ Franciscans, and was greeted initially with skepticism. However, six years later in 1976, Jim made his final profession of vows, and became a religious brother. He died in June of 2011, at age 84, after having spent more than 40 years as a Capuchin brother, having inspired thousands with his real-life prodigal son conversion.2 Jim’s life can teach us three key lessons.

 

No One is Beyond God’s Mercy.

This true account should serve as a reminder that no one is beyond God’s mercy. Jim Townsend committed a horrific, indefensible crime. Yet, there is no sin that any of us has committed that cannot be washed away by the mercy of Jesus Christ, if we truly repent.

Do you believe this? Or, like many, do you believe it true for other people, but not for yourself?

While it is unlikely that anyone reading this has ever murdered anyone, we are all fallen creatures struggling with weakness and sin. Many times, our sins become like anchors around our necks, gradually weighing us down, and crushing the life out of us.  When you find this happening remember the words of Fr Larry Richards:

The Devil calls us to focus on ourselves and our past.

Jesus Christ calls us to focus on Himself and our future.

Have you ever noticed that before you commit a sin, the temptation in your head is: “Go ahead, it’s not that big of a deal – it won’t hurt anyone.” Then, immediately after the sin, the message changes to: “How could you do such a terrible thing, you piece of scum?” In other words, Satan gets us both coming and going. Before the sin, Satan minimises the seriousness of it, but afterwards, he plays it for all it’s worth. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle.

Do you find you are unable to forgive yourself for your sins? Do you constantly look back and beat yourself up for your past behaviour? These thoughts are not from God. When we do this, we are focusing on ourselves and the past. While it is healthy to be sorry and to have contrition for our wrongs, discouragement and despair are tools of the Devil designed to further separate us from God.

 

God’s Mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation Heals the Most Hardened Heart.

As part of Jim Townsend’s strategy for rebuilding his reputation, he began to go to Confession on a weekly basis with Fr. Walsh. However, Jim made a mockery of the sacrament by deliberately making up outrageous sins as part of his weekly confession. He did not realise that Fr. Walsh saw right through the charade.

One day, Jim was anxious to see what Fr. Walsh had been reporting about his behaviour. He picked the lock to Father Walsh’s filing cabinet and read through his reports. What he read stunned him and he prayed.

O, Lord God, I am so sorry. But then, are all these great things he is saying about me really true? I have to sit down. My legs are shaking – they are nothing under me. Nobody ever said stuff like this about me – ever. Father is really my brother and father. Oh, why did I do this? How can I look Father in the eye?

Despite Jim’s many problems, Fr. Walsh was still able to see some good in him. Mother Teresa never stopped telling us that we should see Jesus Christ in everyone. This is a difficult task, especially with people who have committed evil acts. But, God never gives up on any of us, no matter how far down the wrong path we have gone. If we end up in Hell, it will be because we chose to go there, and ignored God’s call to come back to Him.

Sometimes we are afraid or ashamed to confess our sins. This is another weapon of the Devil – he sows doubts in our hearts about the kindness and mercy of Christ.

Sometimes we make excuses and question why we should have to confess our sins to a man. The answer is found in the gospel of John, chapter 20, verses 21-23:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

Jesus gives the apostles (and their successors, today’s bishops and priests) the power to forgive sins. The priest is to act In Persona Christi, in the person of Christ. Note carefully the last verse. How can a priest forgive sins, unless he hears them? Jesus Christ knew that we would need this sacrament – there is something very healing about being able to go and tell another your deepest secrets, without fear of judgement, to know absolutely that you have been forgiven. Verse 23 guarantees it. Even though it can be a little scary, it is also very consoling to humbly recognise your faults and take them to the Divine Physician in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Certainly I was nervous when I made my very first confession. I had 30 years worth of sins to confess! But, I have found this sacrament to be a beautiful experience, and I  have benefited from it greatly.

 

How Long has it been Since Your Last Confession?

As Catholics, we are required to confess our mortal sins at least once a year, but if you study the lives of the saints, you will see they had a devotion to this sacrament, and many spiritual directors suggest receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a month, regardless of whether we have committed serious sin or not.

If you have sin weighing on your heart, and you have not been to Confession, I encourage you to go and receive the Mercy of Jesus. Take your sickness to the Lord in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and let Him heal you. He waits for you.

Jim Townsend’s life was changed when he realised that Someone really loved him, Someone would not give up on him, God did not give up on Jim. God does not give up on any of us.

Sean Widmer

1 Sean Widmer is a Catholic Convert, catechist and blogger.
2 His complete story is recounted in Paul F. Everett, ‘The Prisoner: An Invitation to Hope’ Paulist Press, New Jersey, 2005, 193 pp.

This article can be found in Mirror 0312.