JIM Townsend never thought he could be shown mercy.
He was a troubled youth with no discipline.
The son of an abusive father and a chronically ill mother, Jim had a criminal record following him from before his teen years.
He didn’t graduate from high school, he joined the military, was discharged for assaulting an officer, then eventually tried to settle down and married.
Eight months after the wedding, he shot and killed his 19-year-old wife who was pregnant with twin boys.
After years of anger in prison, Jim was in the middle of a life sentence when he decided to con his way to freedom by faking a spiritual awakening.
But soon after, a book about his life says, God conned him.
Jim began working as a sacristan for the prison chaplain hoping to secure an early release.
But as Jim learned more about the Catholic faith, he found himself becoming a believer.
It was in confession in prison where he bared his soul and brought his shadowy past before the Lord.
The priest who heard his story brought God’s forgiveness and compassion to Jim.
The nightmares of his wife and the boys in her arms, which had tormented him, ended after his confession.
After 20 years as a prisoner, Jim was paroled.
Jim said God’s mercy had inspired and saved him and for the final 40 years of his life he served as a Capuchin Franciscan brother.
Br Jim Townsend spent decades speaking to young men and women across the United States about the mercy and love of God.
He said many young men and women could not forgive themselves for what they had done in their lives.
He showed them that God’s mercy was unfathomable and everything could be forgiven.
Br Jim’s incredible story can be an inspiration for all Catholics in this Year of Mercy.
Pope Francis has urged us to embrace the Sacrament of Mercy this year.
He said Lent was the perfect time to let go of selfish and indifferent attitudes, return to God with the help of prayer, penance and acts of charity.
“Lent is a beneficial time of pruning from falsity, from worldliness, from indifference: to not think that everything is okay if I am okay; to understand that what counts is not approval, the pursuit of success or consensus, but purity of heart and life,” he said.
He said it was a time to rediscover Christian identity, “which is love that serves, not selfishness that uses”.
“(Christ) knows the weakness of our heart; he sees the wound of evil we have committed and suffered; he knows how much we need forgiveness, he knows that we need to feel loved in order to do good.”
Pope Francis has also urged Catholics to perform spiritual or corporal works in Lent and the Year of Mercy.
“In the corporal works of mercy we touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, visited,” he said.
“In the spiritual works of mercy – counsel, instruction, forgiveness, admonishment and prayer – we touch more directly our own sinfulness.”
Following the example of Br Jim Townsend, who died in 2011, the Sacrament of Mercy can change the lives of all sinners this year, no matter what we have done.
By Matt Emerick
Matt Emerick is the managing editor of The Catholic Leader.