This past week, as the world was still remembering the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, a high school principal in Washington State posted on social media that Kobe “deserved” to die, calling it “karma” because, as she claimed, Kobe Bryant was a rapist. The principal was put on administrative leave for her callous and insensitive comment.
Now, it is true that Kobe was accused of rape back in 2003 – a charge that was eventually dropped. And rape is a horrendous, shameful, awful sin and crime. But have you ever noticed how our culture defines people by their sins, and does not believe in second chances?
By all accounts, Kobe had repented of his sin and had begun to live his life as a model Catholic (he was frequently seen at daily Mass, including on the morning of his death). Must we, as a culture, hold someone’s transgressions against them until their death – and beyond?
I remember seeing the newspaper headline on the morning after one of my brother priests had passed away – a priest who had been accused of abuse, but then acquitted. The front-page newspaper headline in the Stamford Advocate proclaimed, “Accused priest dies”. Wait a second – he was innocent! And yet our culture likes to label people, and once labeled, the label sticks around forever.
Thankfully, this is not how God works. As Pope John Paul II said,
“We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son Jesus.”
Thank goodness for such mercy! When God looks at us, He doesn’t see our previously-forgiven sin – He sees the Precious Blood of His Son that covers us; He sees a beloved son or daughter made new in mercy.
We’ve had saints who have been rapists (St. Moses the Black), murderers (St. Paul), Satan-worshippers (Bl. Bartolo Longo). We have had saints with gambling problems (St. Camillus de Lellis), saints who were alcoholics (St. Monica), saints with drug addictions (St. Mark Xi Tianxiang), saints who were prostitutes (St. Mary of Egypt). We’ve had saints who stole things (St. Augustine), saints who were lustful (also St. Augustine) and saints who were heretics before coming to the fullness of truth (…also St. Augustine…).
If the only people becoming saints were those who are born saints, how few saints there would be! But God’s mercy is free, overwhelming, and scandalous: it takes these people who have thrown their lives away through sin, who have made grievous mistakes and even severe crimes, and makes them heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Thus, I believe that it is important that we extend that same mercy to all repentant sinners. Was Kobe a sinner? Of course – we all are. But as a culture we like to hang that “scarlet letter” around people’s necks for all to see, no matter how repentant they are. In fact, there is a modern phrase for that: “virtue-signaling” – which means that by pointing out another person’s transgressions, we somehow tell others how virtuous we are, by comparison.
What does that look like, practically? That family member or neighbor who may have made some serious mistakes in the past – do we accept them once they’ve changed, or do we constantly bring up in conversation those past transgressions? Those celebrities who may have done serious wrongs – do we pray for them, for their conversion, or do we believe they’re beyond redemption? In our own life, do we still suffer the shame of a past sin – or are we able to cast it into the ocean of God’s mercy and forgiveness?
Once, when St. Faustina was having visions of Jesus, she reported them to her Mother Superior. The Mother Superior did not believe her, so she told St. Faustina,
“The next time you see Jesus, ask Him what I said in my last Confession.”
So the next time she had a vision, St. Faustina asked Jesus what the Mother Superior had said in her last Confession. Jesus’ response:
“I don’t remember.”
Jesus does not remember our sins when they are confessed and forgiven. To be a Christian, then, is to be able to see beneath the sin to the person underneath. This doesn’t mean that sin and crimes shouldn’t have consequences – they definitely should. I certainly wouldn’t lend my car keys to a man who’s been convicted of grand theft auto. But I should see him as more than just a thief – but as a child of God, who stands in the need of mercy, just like the rest of us. God gives second chances to repentant sinners – can we do any less?