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Can People with “a Past” Really Change?

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Jorge Quinteros CC

Marge Fenelon - published on 09/03/14

Let's look at the lives of some pretty serious sinners.

The other day a friend and I were discussing someone we know who has “a past.” I mentioned that I was heartened to see that there’d been a noticeable change in this person or at least signs of the potential for change. My friend replied, “People never change.”

I agree. And I disagree.

I think that there are some people who never change because they don’t really want to or because they haven’t the inner strength to change (and don’t know that God can make up for what they lack). Self-destructive and other Immoral behaviors can become ingrained and become a snare holding them fast. Others may be trapped in an environment that keeps them from knowing better. They can’t change because they don’t know that there’s anything better to change to. For people in both of these situations change can be elusive.

The truth is, change is always elusive if we rely solely on human willpower to achieve it. I’m speaking, of course, of interior change, not the easier exterior changes one can make in one’s physique or appearance through diet, exercise, a new hair style or color. The change my friend and I were discussing is moving from the darkness of sin into the light of Christ. That kind of change happens often, but only with God’s grace.

St. Paul is an obvious and startling example. As Saul, he was a Pharisee and zealot who hated Christians to the point of hunting them down and killing them. He was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1) and participated in the stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr for Christ. Saul believed that the Christian faith had to be destroyed and that the only way to accomplish that was to destroy all Christians. Then one day on the road to Damascus, he was blinded by a bright light from heaven. He heard a voice and when he asked who was speaking to him, the voice said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” The long story short is that Saul was converted at the sound of Jesus’ voice. He became Paul, the great missionary apostle to the Gentiles and martyr at the hands of Roman officials. By God’s grace, Paul changed dramatically.

I also think of Mary Magdalene, who some Biblical scholars speculate was a prostitute before she met Jesus. Regardless, she was possessed by seven demons and was freed from them by our Lord (Lk 8:2). When I think of Mary Magdalene’s demons, I’m reminded that we all have “demons” of one sort or another—a vice, a fault, a grudge, woundedness, a mood or personality disorder or a “past.” After her cure, Mary Magdalene became one of Jesus’ most faithful followers, accompanying him throughout his ministry and to the foot of the Cross even when his other disciples abandoned him. She was the first to whom Christ appeared after the Resurrection, and the one he charged with telling the Apostles that he had risen. That says an awful lot about Jesus’ respect for her. With God’s grace, Mary Magdalene changed from a woman possessed to a woman filled with the Spirit.

St. Augustine’s change took far longer than St. Paul’s, but it was nonetheless startling. Raised in the faith by his mother, St. Monica, although not baptized due to the objections of his pagan father, Augustine acquired a concubine, fathered an illegitimate child, Deodatus, and embraced the Manichaean heresy. He lived for years in this state of sinfulness, seemingly oblivious to the pleas and prayers of his mother to repent. For years Augustine lacked the will to change even though he grew increasingly convinced that this is what he must do. One day, learning of two men who gave up their lives in an instant to become monks, he became deeply distressed over his inability to commit to God and abandon a life of sensuality. As he wept and tore his hair, he heard a child’s voice say, “Take up and read.” He picked up a nearby BIble and turned to the letter of St. Paul to the Romans where he read Paul’s injunction against indecencies and his command to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh.” Augustine knew at once that it was time for him to change his life and follow Jesus. He was subsequently baptized, made bishop, and became a saint and Doctor of the Church.

These are just three examples of people who initially resisted, and then embraced change through God’s grace. In my life, there are people who have been transformed by God’s grace and I bet you know some as well.

I often think of St. Paul’s words to the Philippians: “I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me” (Phil 4:13).

People’s pasts are less important than their present and future. Ingrained harmful behaviors, destructive influences on their lives, a regrettable past, all can be overcome when one sincerely and humbly opens oneself to God’s healing love and allows him to effect the change in them.

Some people never change, but others do. And it depends on God’s grace, not our judgments.

Marge Fenelonis a Catholic author, columnist, and speaker and a regular guest on Catholic radio. She’s written several books about Marian devotion and Catholic family life, including Strengthening Your Family: a Catholic Approach to Holiness at Home (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011) and Imitating Mary: Ten Marian Virtues for the Modern Mom (Ave Maria Press, 2013). Find out more about Marge at

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