One mother’s response to her son’s murderer witnesses to God’s love and forgiveness

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It has been many years, but the memory is fresh. On May 14, 1981, in St. Mary’s parish rectory in Jackson, Tennessee, in the Diocese of Memphis, two eighth-grade boys in the parochial school made a horrifying discovery. Sent to the rectory to awaken, they thought, the associate pastor, Father John J. Jackson, who had not appeared for morning Mass, they found his dead body.

On the preceding evening, a burglar, looking for the Sunday collection, broke into the rectory, overwhelmed, and shot the young priest.

Father Jackson’s journey to the priesthood

Father Jackson, after high school, served as a pilot in the Air Force and then studied journalism in college. With a degree, he worked as a reporter for a daily newspaper in Tennessee.

God works in mysterious ways. His editor sent him to interview the bishop of Memphis. One thing led to another. The young reporter decided to go to the seminary, and the bishop enrolled him in the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

Ordained a priest of the Memphis diocese on July 12, 1980, he was assigned to St. Mary’s in Jackson. The people loved him. His cruel death shocked not only his parishioners but also his family, especially his widowed mother.

Finding peace after a child’s death is always acutely painful for a parent, especially after a death as horrible as murder.

The assailant left too many clues behind him. He escaped the scene, but the police found him and arrested him. He was indicted for first-degree murder, tried in court and found guilty as charged. Under Tennessee law, the judge received the verdict and scheduled a session of the court to pronounce judgment. The death penalty was available, and prosecutors insisted upon it.

A mother’s forgiveness

As the court deliberated, Father Jackson’s widowed mother, now herself deceased, supported by her three other children, gave her opinion, shocking some, puzzling others and edifying still others.

She was a gentle, soft-spoken, deeply devout Catholic lady. She loved all her children, and, in her piety, her priest-son was the apple of her eye.

Regarding his murderer, she recalled what led her son to the priesthood, and what inspired his priesthood, a sense of God’s love for every person, individually, personally, regardless of faults and failings, and she said that her son believed that God, in this love, forgives every person’s sins, however awful.

She declared that she would be disloyal to her deceased son, to her Church and to the Lord if she did not forgive her son’s murderer and plead for the murderer’s life.

Death penalty

In the court, the prosecutor asked for the death penalty, saying that, somehow, in some way, executing the convicted murderer would bring “justice” in the case, that Father Jackson “deserved” his assailant’s death. Killing the murderer would be the best way to teach others that killing someone is wrong.

The news media extensively reported the murder and the murderer’s trial, fascinated by the story of a promising, bright, young newspaper reporter becoming a priest, and his murder that was an especially tragic end to the story.

His mother’s approach was a great moment for evangelization, of proclaiming the Gospel and the Lord’s love for all.

One newspaper columnist wrote, “The prosecutor does not make good sense!”

Apparently, the court had the same observation. It ordered the penalty of life imprisonment. The convicted man later died in prison.

Years later, on what would have been the anniversary of Father Jackson’s ordination, several priests — his seminary classmates — visited his mother. She told them that she never missed a day without remembering him.

She also said that she was totally at peace because she followed the Lord’s example.

Anger and resentment compound grief. They produce the opposite of peace. Revenge makes it incredibly worse. The Lord, who forgives all and loves all, brings peace. Every human life, without qualification, is sacred.

Church teaching about capital punishment simply makes good sense.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.