Why I Pray For These Men

While visiting my future in-laws in Colorado for the holidays, I heard about the execution of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and said immediately to my fiancé, "We'll have to pray for him."

I fell asleep late that night praying a Rosary for his soul.

It seems that I cannot forget about Saddam these days, which surprises me, given my habit of being shamefully out-of-touch with the news. During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, I was still in Girl Scouts. Saddam was a vague "bad guy" often caricatured on Saturday Night Live. I never thought much about him when he was alive. Now that he's dead, he follows me everywhere.

I think I know what changed.

When I read St. Faustina's Diary, I was struck by her accounts of praying the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy for dying sinners and knowing that through her prayers God had actually saved those sinners from hell. I was amazed, and I asked myself, "Is God really that responsive? Are prayers that powerful?"

The answers to both of those questions, I learned, lie in the Blood of Christ. By His suffering, Christ showed the world that His obedience to the will of His Father is absolute. And while I grew up with the unthinking belief that a certain number of people going to hell is inevitable, I could not, as a thinking adult, stomach the idea that God would will any of His children - fearfully and wonderfully made in the hollow of His Hand - to be eternally damned.

Of course, we are sinners, and through our freewill, we have the ability to thwart God's loving plans for us through our sin. But my prayer and study of the Divine Mercy message have convinced me that it must be possible for everyone to be saved. What else would God want for His creation?

I think about the image of the devil in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ screaming from the depths of hell when Jesus dies - and the devil is alone. Hell is suddenly empty. As I learned more about the message of The Divine Mercy and St. Faustina, I began to pray the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy every day for this intention: that hell would be empty of human souls.

Saint Faustina's stories of praying for dying souls at first left me awestruck by her holiness. But in time I came to realize that these salvation accounts really point to the holiness of Jesus' Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. As long as we accept God's mercy, Christ's sacrifice has the power to save us no matter how horrible our sins.

The moment I realized that my awe shifted from the person of the saint to the mercy of God, which is exactly what would have most delighted St. Faustina. Accepting God's mercy, however, is difficult for some souls. That, I learned from the Diary, is where intercessory prayer comes in. Praying the Chaplet for someone can call on the saving power of Jesus' Blood when that person's heart, so long estranged from the God of Love, cannot bring itself to ask for mercy. God, through the prayers of others, soaks the sinner in the grace of mercy - a gift that is neither earned nor deserved - so that each one may trust Him and His forgiveness.

Saint Faustina wrote that she did not have to be by the side of the dying person in order for her prayer to be effective because the Holy Spirit is not limited by space. If God is not limited by space, I reasoned, it seems necessary to conclude that He is also not limited by time.

Gradually, I put the following thoughts together:

•God wants all of us to be saved;
• through Jesus, this is indeed possible;
• many (if not all) of us need prayers from others in order to accept that mercy; and
• time and space are no obstacle for God.

And with a somewhat tentative heart, not knowing if I was really supposed to, but feeling that I could not resist, I began praying for the soul of Judas Iscariot - the infamous apostle who betrayed Jesus. And I began praying for Adolf Hitler. And the 9/11 hijackers. Anyone I could think of who might have died, no matter how long ago or where or in what manner, in a state of serious sin without the grace of final repentance.

As I said, I was tentative at first. After all, I remembered my teacher in Catholic school telling us that Judas was damned because he did not believe in God's forgiveness. Since then Pope Benedict XVI has cleared up that misconception, explaining recently that the position of the Church is that it has never pronounced or concluded Judas' damnation; God's mercy is a mystery and not known by the mind of man or even the angels.

Still, for a long time, it seemed to be a given that Judas was damned; the only topic up for discussion was why. I even considered asking a priest in the confessional if praying for the soul of someone like Judas or Hitler might be a sin. But one day while I prayed the Rosary, I heard and reflected upon the words of the Fatima Prayer, which Our Lady gave us, with more attention than I ever had before: "Oh, my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of Your mercy" [emphasis mine].

When I was a child, I used to wonder who those people were. Now I was starting to understand. Those whom the devil has thoroughly hoodwinked are the ones in most need of mercy, and as a Christian I am supposed to love them and pray for them. Love, in a Christian sense, has little or nothing to do with "approval" or "warm feelings." As a human being, and as the teacher and friend of many Jewish people, I have no affection for Hitler. But Christian love means genuinely wishing only good for someone else and doing what we can to help that person receive that which is good: in other words, that which is God's loving will for him or her.

Is it good for Hitler to suffer forever in hell? Does God want to see His wayward son there? Of course not. So I must pray for him to be in heaven, no matter how unlikely my brain tells me that is, even if it requires so much faith it seems downright crazy. And the real miracle of it is that if I get to heaven and if I meet Hitler there, I will have affection for him - perhaps greater than the earthly affection I feel for my loved ones now - because we will both be redeemed by the Blood of Christ and brought into the perfect love of our Father.

Many times I think of the possibility that I am one of the people most in need of God's mercy. I have sinned over and over again, and every day since I was a child I have struggled with pride, probably the most damaging of vices.

When I pray for sinners like Saddam I often catch myself thinking, "Thank God I am virtuous, not like him." I do the same when I think of people in my everyday life who offend or hurt me (I must pray for and love them, too, which is harder and, therefore, even more urgent than praying for far-off criminals I have never met). Then, I have to ask God's mercy for myself - for thinking like the arrogant Pharisee instead of the penitent tax collector. After all, Jesus bled the same Blood for me as for Saddam, Hitler or Judas. I am no less a sinner than they. But I have been given the free and undeserved gift of the grace to love my God, and I do not want Him to see any of His children's chairs empty at the feast.

Intercessory prayer like the Chaplet of Divine Mercy is the veil with which I wipe my suffering Savior's face.

On New Year's Day - my last full day in Colorado - I visited the pottery studio of a friend of my fiancé's family. On the wall was a beautiful tile with the words, "If you judge people, you have no time to love them." Jesus is clear on which activity He wants us to spend our energies.

Maybe, as Sister Helen Prejean writes in Dead Man Walking, someday all instruments of capital punishment will be in museums. As people who desire a world of mercy, we should pray for that and work for that. But we must also remember in prayer the ones already condemned by the world - whether in its courts or its heart - sinners whose crimes we can hardly bear to think of. Whether we want to believe it or not, they are God's sons and daughters, and He stands continually at the gate of His home, eagerly watching for any sign of them coming down the road, back to Him.

Marian Tascio is a middle school teacher and a freelance writer who lives in Yonkers, N.Y.

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