I have a particular affinity for small towns. I find them to be charming, intimate and real. They say that “small is beautiful” and I have found this to be true. Growing up in a rather large city, I find the down-home atmosphere of a small town quite comforting. Of course, those who have grown up in a small town might have a very different perspective than me. Perhaps it is inevitable that we are so often drawn to the opposite of our early experiences in life while at the same time retaining an affinity to where we started.
Serving as a pastor in small towns, I experienced first-hand the strength of what a tight-knit community brings to life. Faith, family and love of country are often beautifully on display. But I also experienced its shadow side. And the shadow that was often cast was this — that what a person had done earlier in his life permanently branded him in the memories of those who also lived in the small town.
If an arrest was made for shoplifting at age 15, the person was remembered as a thief for the rest of his days – and buried as one at age 90. If a young girl was a little wild at age 17, that reputation stuck to her even when she was well into her 70s and no longer quite so wild. And oftentimes the memories metastasized over the intervening years in order to keep the retold story interesting. All of this is a great sadness.
One of the hard-edged lessons of life is that people rarely change. Personality traits, tendencies and weaknesses often remain the same for the rest of our days. We codify this coyly by stating that, “a zebra never changes its stripes” or “a leopard its spots.” We know this from interactions with people who we haven’t seen for years and who we soon discover are remarkably the same as we remember them. You see! A zebra … We also know it looking in the mirror some mornings. We are the same people that we have always been — the good, the bad and the ugly. You see! A leopard…
But people can change. People do change! We also know this from experience. A change of heart, repentance, lessons learned from the hard knocks of life have brought many of us to a better place, a more virtuous place and a holier place. We have changed and we hardly recognize who we once were.
The whole of the Christian message of redemption and grace speaks to this fact. With God in our lives we are changed — we can repent — we can become different people than we once were. The resurrection of Jesus is everything for us as Christians because in it, we too can rise from our dead past and be born again. A new start and new beginning in Jesus Christ!
But do we believe this? Tragically, we are increasingly unwilling to do so. Today, the media news cycle is filled with scandals from decades ago. Whether in politics, education, family life or the church, we spend our days arrogantly imposing our crystal clear modern understanding upon past generations. We spend much of our time and energy being outraged by what people said or did half a century ago while at the same time hoping that nobody will shine a spotlight on our activity today.
One of the traits of modernity is its arrogance towards the present and its hatred of the past. And what this looks like in small towns, big cities, in our families and in the church is that we like to put people in boxes. Once a thief, always a thief. Once an adulteress, always an adulteress. Once a sinner, always a sinner. You see how neat and tidy that is? But it is untrue.
Christianity is filled with people who have changed. The Scriptures testify to this. The apostles testify to this. The saints and the martyrs testify to this. And most of those who sit beside us in the pews testify to this. Perhaps we have changed as well. Each of us have thought or said this great statement of maturity, “If only I knew then what I know now!”
There is a place for justice. And there is a place for mercy. But we must remember that people can and often do change. And that God’s grace is at work in every person. Whether we live in a small town or a large city, when we repent and return to God there is much rejoicing in heaven. And in the end, this is all that matters.
Fr. Girotti, who serves as vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia, is author of “A Shepherd Tends His Flock.”