Sunday, March 21, 2010

St. Paul—The Woman Caught in Adultery—Eva Lavalliere: Three Very Big Conversion Stories

Eva Lavalliere

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on March 21, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 8: 1-11.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2010]

St. Paul once called himself, “the worst of sinners.” He did that in his first letter to Timothy, chapter 1. Then he went on in that chapter to add these words: “But on that very account I was dealt with mercifully, so that in me, as an extreme case, Jesus Christ might display all his patience, and that I might become an example to those who would later have faith in him and gain everlasting life.”

This is why St. Paul often told his conversion story: he wanted to inspire other people to follow his example of repentance! He wanted to motivate men and women to seek the mercy of God with total confidence and faith. He hoped that people would hear his testimony and say to themselves, “Wow, if Jesus can forgive that guy, Paul, then he can forgive anybody—including me!”

Every once in a while, it’s good to hear a story like this—the story of a big sinner’s repentance and conversion—as an added incentive for us to change our lives for the better.

Because all of us need improvement!

The Church has given us one of those stories in today’s gospel text from John 8—this account of the woman caught in the act of adultery. She was condemned by everyone but Jesus, who read her heart and recognized her repentance. He forgave her, and asked only one thing: that she try to avoid committing the same sin in the future (which, of course, is the very same pledge we make at the end of the Act of Contrition, which we say just before we’re absolved in Confession).

Jesus said, “Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

Recently I read another inspiring story of repentance and conversion that I’ll share with you this morning. It involved a famous French actress of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Eva Lavalliere.

Eva grew up in what we would call today a “severely dysfunctional family.” She later said, “As a child, I knew not what the love and care of a mother was. My life was tears and suffering from the time I reached the age of reason.”

Her greatest suffering came, no doubt, on the day her alcoholic father shot and killed her mother—and himself—right in front of her.

She found a kind of escape from her pain in the life of the theater. She performed for royalty; she became perhaps the best known actress in France and much of Europe. As she later put it, “Gold ran through my hands. I had everything the world could offer, everything I could desire. Nevertheless, I regarded myself the unhappiest of souls.”

So unhappy that she even attempted suicide a couple of times.

I’m sure it didn’t help that during this period of her life she had also gotten involved in the occult, and had literally sold her soul to the devil in exchange for fame, fortune and beauty.

The events that changed her life happened in June of 1917, when she was 51. During that month she decided to rent a palace—literally, a palace!—near Tours, France, for some rest and relaxation prior to a singing tour she was to go on here in the United States. Well, the trustee of this palace just happened to be the local parish priest.

After inviting her to a Mass in which he preached about the conversion of big sinners, this priest began a dialogue with Eva that eventually resulted in her being reconciled to God and the Church. She renounced her involvement in the occult, went to Confession, and received Communion for the first time in many years. One observer said that after Eva received she spent a long time in prayer and seemed “in another world.”

Amazingly, she never went back to singing and acting. She gave away her fortune, got rid of her jewels, and canceled her contracts.

She wrote, “My resolution is made. From now on, only Jesus has a right to my life, for He alone gave me happiness and peace.”

This caused quite a stir in Europe at the time, as you might imagine—even without television and the internet.

From 1917, until her death in 1929, Eva Lavalliere led a life of penance, prayer and service to the sick and the poor. She had a few bouts with depression along the way—conversion doesn’t make all our problems disappear!—but basically she led a very joyful life.

In 1929, just before she died, a newspaper in Paris interviewed her. Here’s part of it. They asked her, “Do you suffer a lot?” (She was very sick at the time.)

She responded, “Yes, horribly.”

“Have you any hope of being cured?”

“None. But I am so happy! You cannot imagine how great my happiness is.”

“Even with so much suffering?”

“Yes, and because of it. I am in God’s hands. Tell my friends of days gone by that you met the happiest person on earth.”

St. Paul—the woman caught in adultery—Eva Lavalliere: three very big conversion stories.

Of course, my brothers and sisters, it doesn’t do us any good to hear stories like these, unless they inspire us to embrace repentance in our own lives.

And speaking of repentance and conversion, when was the last time YOU made a really good Confession?

If it’s been awhile, then resolve to be here next Saturday at 3:30pm!

Mark you calendar as soon as you get home—just to make sure you don’t forget.