The Grace of Repentance that turns a Sinner into a Saint (Jacques Fesch)


I haven't much to be proud of! It is true that the Lord loves to choose what is feeble and rejected, in order to show that it is by His grace acting through our weakness, that we are saved. The only thing I can glory in is my trials, sufferings, and crosses, provided I accept them wholeheartedly and offer them to our Lord in reparation for my sins. That is why the Apostle said, "I glory in nothing but the cross of our Lord." Only, my nature is so evil that I cannot bring myself to accept so painful a lot, and I have settled for a rather fatalistic resignation, which is very far from what Christ asks of me. In truth, little brother, I have done much evil in this world, and I deserve to be condemned with the damned. 0, that I may hear on the day of my judgment: "Jacques, God the Father, whose compassion is infinitely greater than your sins, will pity you deeply and will grant you many graces."


On February 25, 1954, in the rue Vivienne in Paris, a young man with no prior criminal record assaulted a money changer in order to rob him. The attempt failed. Recognized moments later by a passerby, he fled in panic and was eventually cornered. During his attempt at escape he instinctively reached for the weapon he had foolishly carried with him and shot a policeman, instantly killing him. In his flight he also seriously wounded another man who was trying to stop him. At his trial, he was condemned to death on the guillotine, Sentence was passed for the beginning of April 1957. His appeal for pardon was eventually rejected and on October 1 of the same year, more than three and a half years after the crime and six months after his trial, Jacques Fesch was executed for the crime of murder. He was twenty-seven.

But this is only part of the story of this life for God found His way into his heart. During the long months of detention in isolation, a remarkable change took place in the life of this young man ­husband, father, and ne'er-do-well. An atheist at the time of his entrance into prison, he rediscovered his faith with the help of the prison chaplain, his lawyer, and a monk who had been a friend of his wife Pierrette. The letters which he wrote from prison allow us to follow his spiritual journey from sinner to saint. They also give us a rare insight into the life and sufferings of a prisoner and later into the psyche of a man condemned to death. What he wrote during his last night throbs with a terrible and unforgettable intensity. "Here is a man whom men have judged, condemned and executed. Here is a man whom the Lord, we are convinced, has welcomed into Life."  In the short time between his conversion and his execution, he scaled the heights of the spiritual life.



To his mother:

Dear Mama,

I had a wonderful Sunday, one of the best days of my life, spent in continual joy, light, and warmth. It was the Blessed Virgin who showered me with all this, and she did it in honor of the feast of her birthday which was celebrated yesterday. Who can fail to discover all the beauty and goodness of God in the grates He gives us! It is so good when He touches the soul. Such joy floods it that it can no longer desire anything outside of our Savior. Yes, it is consoling -to realize that a sinner like me can receive such gifts.

You know my weak na­ture, spineless, inclining to what is evil and to the line of least resis­tance. If I am so filled with delights, what can we say about others who are far more willing and generous? May you too turn to the love of God. At this very moment you are fluttering around the light like a blind butterfly. You sense its nearness but you can't make your way toward it because you don't know how. I have firm hope that you too will find it.  You know that I am frank with you, even if it means saying terrible things to you. Well, look – never write and never think that now you have the right to think of yourself a little, and to rest in an artificial and illusory life! If you thought that, you would be insulting the cross.

Mama, after years spent far from the Lord, it is not rest that awaits you, but repentance. You have to expiate and ask forgiveness from God. You do not have great misdeeds to your account, but great lacks. It is this, passivity that must be filled up. The acts of love that you are making now, God appreciates and takes into account.

"Neither do I condemn you"

This execution which frightens you, Mama, is noth­ing in comparison with what awaits sinners in the next world! It is not for me that you should weep, but for sins which offend God. As for me, I am happy. Jesus is calling me to himself, and great graces have been given me. If you could only taste for a single instant the sweetness of the transports of divine love! And could realize the absolute gravity of the slightest offense! God must come first, do not forget it. He calls you and believes in you. You are rich in his love. Many souls are linked with yours, and you will have an account to render.

You must go to Christ, without whom you can do nothing. If you seek him, you will find him, but you must seek him with all your heart. I'm always afraid that without realizing it you are seeking yourself rather than God. You are the handmaid of the Lord, therefore you owe him complete submission. The Lord is your inheritance, therefore you owe him thanks.

Above all, do not seek your own will, but his. Shut out all other thoughts; do not argue. Make your peace with the Church and pray regularly, that is, a certain number of prayers to be recited daily (especially the rosary). Go to Mass on Sundays and communicate as often as you can. 


Letting Jesus into Our Boat

May your love draw down upon you the mercy of the Lord, and may he let you see that within your soul a saint is sleeping. I shall ask him to make you so open and supple that you will be able to under­stand and do what he wants you to do. Your life is nothing; it is not even your own. Each time you say "I'd like to do this or that," you wound Christ, robbing him of what is his. You have to put to death every­thing within you except the desire to love God. This is not at all hard to do. It is enough to have confi­dence and to thank the little Jesus for all the poten­tialities he has placed within you. You are called to holiness, like me, like everyone, don't forget.

You have a large ship to steer. You must set about it courageously, but don't count on yourself for alone you can do nothing. It is not you who must act but Christ in you. And then you will taste the marvels of divine love, prayers filled with honey, ravishing delights and ecstasies, and your soul will climb;with­out you noticing it, to the summit of love. But for this, you must put self-love to death, and pray. Become like the slave of others. Renounce yourself complete­ly. Be like the clay which the divine potter can shape as he wills. The one who abandons himself to God in this way no longer has a heart of flesh in his breast, but a ball of fire. And I assure you that when the Lord begins to kindle the fire of his love, his victim is quick to cry for mercy, for the joy is beyond our human strength to bear. May you, too, penetrate into this world! But don't forget, you have to give everything.

I have asked the chaplain to bring me Communion on Wednesdays and Fridays. He will do it, and will send me a replacement during his vacation. How can I express my joy to you! Each time I receive the Sacred Host my heart overflows with love, and a song of thanksgiving rises to my lips. Infinite mercy … I am saved in spite of myself. Instead of dying in vain, I can offer my life for all those whom I love! Everything comes back to the love of Jesus … I pray especially to Blessed Virgin, to whom her Son has entrusted my salvation, and no prayers give me such joy, such a spirit of communion, as the Holy Mary and the Hail Holy Queen. We must love her, little brother, it is so good. If we could only understand a fraction of the love, Jesus has for us! But we are too egotistical, and we only want to see what fleshly eyes can show us.  

Believe me, Mama, there is no injustice willingly accepted that does not bear fruit a hundredfold, and receive its just reward beyond our comprehension. Do not think that all the sorrows that have overwhelmed our family in recent years are useless. On the contrary, they are necessary, in order that just reparation may be and that through this the love of Christ may be given us in its fullness.

It is only recently that I have come to understand the meaning of the cross. It is at once prodigious and atrocious: prodigious because it gives us life, and atrocious because if we do not accept to be crucified.

You see, I am certainly going through a strange agony and the preparation for this bloody and horrible farce. Well, if I tremble at it, it is not because of physical fear but because I understand better now all the purity of Christ as contrasted with my meanness. In spite of all that is going to happen to me, I shall only be saved by grace, grace alone.

What to say of others? Many have suffered in vain because they did not want to say ‘fiat' and renounce themselves. Be sure, Mama, that your sufferings are in vain if you do not offer them to God. No one can go to the Father except through Christ, and to Christ, except through the Church. May you finish your days in peace, reconciled with the Church and received into her heart. On high, there is a source of mercy! But one must ask for it, and first put oneself in a position to receive the fullness of grace.


Dear little brother,

Thank you for your good letter which I had awaited impatiently and for your charity to me, which is "kind, patient, humble, which, believes all, hopes all." Yes, little brother, I want to look neither above nor behind, but to remain in the present moment. I want to hold the Blessed Virgin's hand and never let go of it until she leads me to her Son.

I am living through marvelous hours, and I feel as if I had never lived any other life than the one I've been experiencing now. Jesus draws me to Himself, and knowing the weakness of soul He gives me much, while asking for so little. For each effort that I make I receive another grace, and, in view of the shortness of the time, this ascent toward God is being achieved far more quickly than it would be for someone who still had years ahead of him.

The Blessed Virgin protects me, shows me the way I must go and what her Son wants of me. Thus my sufferings are changed into joy, and in order to mitigate the anguish of the last moments, our Mother makes me prefer the other world to this one.

From Light over the Scaffold, the Prison Letters of Jacques Fesch presented by A. Lemonnier

J Fesch

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage