Opinion & Features

Year of Mercy: Jesus led me away from crime

I was afraid of what the priest would think when I told him my sins (CNS)

As we approach the Year of Mercy, I often reflect on how the biggest part of God’s heart is his mercy and how that same mercy has changed my life.

I was born in the East End of London. When I was 10 my parents told me to choose which one of them I wanted to live with as they were getting divorced. Looking back, I think this led me to make a decision inside not to love again. The people you love just crush you, I thought.

Yet by the time I was 27, I had everything that the world says you need to be happy. I had a penthouse flat, sports cars and more money than I could spend.

The way I got my money was though organised crime. I was involved in major drug deals, protection rackets and violence of all kinds. I used to have a long leather jacket with a sewn-in pocket in which I carried a machete. I tell you this not to glory in the past, but rather to glory in the transforming power of God.

But one evening I returned home and suddenly became aware of a voice speaking inside me. I recognised that this voice belonged to God. At that moment I said my first prayer, and my life began to change. I didn’t know at the time that my mother had been praying a novena to St Jude for me. It was on the last day of the novena that I felt I heard the voice of God.

I decided to go on retreat. Up to that point, I had thought that a retreat was something that took place on a beach, in the company of a nice girl, with spliffs and whisky. So I was rather surprised when I arrived at the retreat centre and it was nothing how I had imagined.

In the first talk, the priest focused on the phrase “give me your wounded heart”. He said that each sin we commit is like a wound in our heart. As he was speaking I was looking at a crucifix. I knew in that moment why Jesus had died for me: because he wanted me to receive forgiveness.

When I came out of the talk, I said a prayer to Our Blessed Mother Mary. I asked her what Jesus wanted me to do. I felt I heard her respond: “Go to Confession.”

I was afraid of what the priest would think when I told him my sins. But Mary gave me the courage and I went to Confession. It lasted for more than an hour.

I was completely honest and did not leave anything out. Then the priest placed his hand on my head and gave me absolution. But it was not his hand I felt on my head: it was Christ’s. I knew that I had been forgiven.

I hadn’t realised before that day that our hearts are like a glass window. On one side is God’s unconditional love; on the other is our sins. In the end we cannot see how much God loves us. We just see how unworthy we are of him, or feel worthless.

I took all that sin and tipped it out at the foot of the Cross. I was alive again. I could feel the wind on my face.

Confession had brought me back to life. When I looked in the priest’s eyes, he was crying. He was not judging me; he was Jesus to me.

Now I live and work full time for Jesus at the St Patrick’s Community in Ireland. Many times people ask me how they can personally meet Jesus. I always say: “By going to Confession and being completely honest.” He always comes
to us in the humility of this sacrament of healing.

I run a lot of parish missions around the world. At a mission in Derry a man in his eighties came up to me. He was very emotional and thanked me profusely.

He said he had been going to Mass every Sunday since he was seven. But that night he had met Jesus personally after going to Confession for the first time in 48 years. God’s mercy had changed his life.

At a mission I gave in Tuam Cathedral a 15-year-old girl said to me: “When you came to my school this morning I did not believe in God. But because of what you said tonight, I went to Confession. Not only do I now know Jesus is real, but I also know he loves me.” She told me that Confession had brought her to a deep understanding of God’s love and mercy.

Confession changed my life and I thank Jesus every day for his mercy. I now receive the sacrament regularly and each time I feel as if I have been made new again.

God’s mercy is very much alive and changing many lives. When we receive God’s forgiveness, and forgive ourselves and others, we become a part of that mercy. When we ask Jesus to help us forgive the people who have hurt us or those we love, he leads us to freedom.

The hardest person I found to forgive was myself. Recently I was speaking to a group of about 25 former drug addicts. One of the men asked me: “How did you stop hating yourself?” I said that I started seeing myself though God’s eyes, without hatred and judgment, but with mercy and understanding,

When I wrote my autobiography, From Gangland to Promised Land, my mum would not read the first half, in which I described my life as an evil gangster. She only read the second half, in which I was following Jesus.

One day I heard that she had finally read the first part. When I met her next I asked her what she thought of it. She burst into tears and said: “My poor wounded little boy …”

In that moment, she did not see the terrible things I had done. She just saw her little boy who was hurt so much that he made all those terrible choices. I realised that, through my mum, I was getting a glimpse of how God sees us with his mercy.

So in this year dedicated to the greatest attribute of God’s heart, his mercy, let us all be a part of this miracle.