Most people are familiar with Jesus’ parable that has come to be known as “The Prodigal Son.” (Luke 15:11-32). It is the story that illustrates Jesus’ concern for the lost and God’s love for the repentant sinner. It is not unlike the real life drama of many wayward souls. I just finished reading the book Deathbed Conversions: Finding Faith at the Finish Line by Karen Edmisten. In this book, the lives of thirteen famous people are briefly recounted to try to sum up what can happen to the human heart when God’s love is allowed to enter in. These are late-in-life conversions to the Catholic faith.
An example is megastar John Wayne. Wayne, whom we also know as the Duke, married his first of three wives, Josephine (Josie) Saenz, while in college at the University of Southern California. Josie was a devout Catholic who raised their four children in the Church. The Duke refused to convert to Josie’s family faith, but they wed nonetheless. And, as so often happens in Hollywood, the marriage ended in divorce after only twelve years following Wayne’s affair with his future second wife, Chata Bauer. The four children were ages ten, eight, five, and four. It was not unlike the prodigal son (in this case, he was a prodigal husband) in that the man totally rejected her way of life to live a life of dissipation and debauchery. The Duke’s drinking and womanizing (he began an affair with his third wife while still married to Chata) brought an end to his second marriage. The new woman, Pilar, soon became pregnant. Edmisten writes, concerning Duke’s marriage to this third woman: “But, it was a messy beginning – their secret affair, a pregnancy, and an abortion.”
Edmisten then asks (and answers) the question “How did this thrice-married, hard-drinking, larger-than-life megastar make his leap to Catholicism?” How was it that he, like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, came to his senses? His first wife, who never re-married, prayed for him unceasingly. All three of his wives and all seven of his children remained faithful Catholics. His good friend, John Ford, died “with priests in his room and a rosary in his hand.” He was always surrounded by faithful Catholics. Dying of lung cancer and in consultation with a priest, he did convert on his deathbed.
The story brings to mind another message from Scripture. How is it that someone who lives an immoral life can be given his heavenly reward at the last possible minute alongside all those who have been faithful for their entire life? It reminds me of the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Mat 20:1-16): How can the workers who only worked for a short time be given the same wage as those who worked the entire day? The prodigal son’s father expressed the answer this way: “We must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:32). The heavenly reward is for all who die in the state of grace. Amen.