A delinquent and wastrel; a murderer executed for his crime. Surely a bad example? Well, yes, if you ignore his conversion. “In five hours I shall see Jesus,” said Jacques Fesch shortly before he was guillotined in October 1957, aged 27. Seven last words that signpost redemption.
Is it possible to find Christ and change? Jacques’s story teaches that it is. Most photographs of Jacques are from his arrest and trial; he looks surly and indifferent. But snapshots of anyone’s life never tell the whole truth. Human potentiality and finality are difficult things to judge. Hoping for the best, giving the benefit of the doubt, tracking past performance: these all fall away when grace triumphs.
Born on April 6 1930 in a Paris suburb, Jacques’s complex family background, teenage rejection of Catholicism, promiscuity and infidelity all make him thoroughly contemporary. He hatched a plot to sail away to the South Pacific. To fund this, he planned a robbery, but botched it and in the course of the attempt he shot and killed a policeman. So began three years and eight months of solitary confinement. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.
But those 1,315 days in prison were transformative. Incrementally, with the prayers and witness of other Catholics, Jacques faced up to the truth about himself, about his life, and about Christ. At the end of his first year in prison he wrote: “A powerful wave of emotion swept over me, causing me deep and brutal suffering. Within the space of a few hours I came into possession of faith, with absolute certainty. I believed and could no longer understand how I had ever not believed.”
He continued: “Grace had come to me. A great joy flooded my soul, and above all a deep peace … It was a very strong, sensible joy that I felt. I tend now to try, perhaps excessively, to recapture it: actually, the essential thing is not emotion, but faith.” Reconciled with his wife, he sought to make amends for his crime. Prison was his Damascus and Emmaus all rolled into one.
What can we learn from him? That no one is beyond redemption. That prayer changes things. That grace is a real and undeserved gift. That God never gives up on anyone and neither should we.
The Most Reverend John Wilson is Archbishop of Southwark