The event was the annual Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church Holy Name Society “smoker,” a pre-Easter gathering bringing the men of the parish together for food, fellowship and, back then, cigars.
The location was the large but low-ceilinged hall in the church basement. This was years before the spacious community center on William Street was built.
A couple of hundred men sat shoulder-to-shoulder around several round and rectangular tables. Some brought homemade wine. Most wore jackets and ties.
The speaker was the Rev. Ron Ashmore, invited to address the men by then-pastor the Rev. Paul McDonnell.
No one had ever heard of Father Ashmore, but after listening to his introduction, everyone in the room moved to the edge of their chairs and leaned forward, anxious to hear what he had to say.
They weren’t going to like it.
Father Ashmore had been the spiritual guide of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh during the last months of the terrorist’s life. The priest had spent countless hours in the company of a man who in 1995 detonated a truck bomb in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168, including 19 young children attending a day care center on the ground floor. Later, McVeigh would shrug at any mention of those children, dismissing them as “collateral damage.”
Two years after the bombing, McVeigh was found guilty of the heinous crime. He was put to death by lethal injection in 2001.
Father Ashmore’s message centered not on McVeigh’s crime, however, but on God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness — even for someone as despicable as Timothy McVeigh.
“When Timothy McVeigh arrived in heaven,” Father Ashmore said, “all those little children he killed were there to welcome him with open arms.”
Did he say “arrived in heaven?”
The men held their tongues, but their faces betrayed what they were thinking. A few clapped politely at the conclusion of the priest’s remarks, but most withheld their applause. Several walked out, ostensibly to use the men’s room, but it made you wonder.
This room full of good men — good Christian men — wanted no part of the very thing Christ preached throughout his ministry. Two weeks before the celebration of Easter and less than that before they would hear once again from the Gospel of St. Luke something they had heard all their lives, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they do,” these men could not accept or even imagine forgiveness without limitations. No matter what Father Ashmore believed, surely the likes of Timothy McVeigh could not wind up in heaven.
I admit I tended to agree. But as days passed I could not get Father Ashmore’s words, or those of Christ hanging on the cross, out of my mind. It’s been said forgiveness is so important to Christ it is the only part of the Lord’s Prayer with a condition attached to it. Our own forgiveness depends upon how we forgive.
That’s a lot of pressure.
Then I read something in the book “A Course in Miracles” that upped the ante. No matter what our beliefs, the book’s authors maintain, even if we claim to be an atheist or agnostic, deep inside every one of us, at the very core of our being, we know we are created in God’s image. And because of this, if we are incapable of forgiveness, we will live in fear all of our lives. Translation: if we cannot forgive, God cannot forgive — and if God cannot forgive, we all are doomed.
Fortunately that is not the case. God does forgive. That is what we are taught and that is what we must believe.
But even when it comes to a Timothy McVeigh?
Especially when it comes to a Timothy McVeigh.
If God can forgive a Timothy McVeigh, God can forgive me.
That’s a great comfort, because God knows I need it.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.