This story is taken from Fr. Ken Barker’s book, ‘His Name is Mercy’ (chapter 13, Forgiving Yourself; under the subheading, ‘His Mercy sets us Free’):
“A true story of a man haunted by the past, whose life had been totally miserable due to the harrowing burden of guilt, was told by Sr. Anne Shields at a conference in Rome some years back. A priest in California was preparing to go to bed on a Sunday night after a busy day when the phone rang. It was a nurse at the hospital which was a couple of hours drive away. A man was dying. He was a Catholic and would “Father” come. The priest was reluctant because there was a storm raging outside. But he decided to go. Upon arrival he entered the room of the dying man. He introduced himself and was gruffly told to “go to hell.” The conditions of the storm had worsened, so the priest decided he would hang around for a while. An hour later he approached the man again. “I am a Catholic priest. You are dying. Are you sure I can’t help you in any way?” Again the man rebuked him, demanding that he be left alone. For some reason the priest decided he would try once more. He waited another hour. Then he entered the room for the last time. To his surprise the man responded, “Well, I may as well tell you.” Then he began to relate the story of his life. Forty years previously he worked on a railway signals box. Everything was done manually in those days. It was Christmas time, and he had been drinking. When the train was approaching he pulled the wrong lever. The train went down the wrong track and collided into a car as it was crossing the lines. A woman and her two children were killed instantly. He told the priest that from that day onwards he had lived with the guilt of that accident. He kept to himself, never married, and gave up on life. He lived in quiet despair.
The priest, who had been listening very intently, asked him a few more questions about the date and time of the accident. Then he said to the dying man, “I want you to listen closely to me. You did not know this. But there was another little boy in that car. He lived. And when he grew up he became a priest. And he is speaking with you right now! And I want you to know, I forgive you.”
That man, who had spent his whole life in such an awful prison of self-hate, guilt and self-recrimination, was able to hear from the priest the words of forgiveness that set him free. He was finally able to forgive himself as he heard the words of absolution from the priest, but also the words of forgiveness from the little boy who had lost his mother and siblings in an accident 40 years previously. He died in peace…
Those of us who are dogged by feelings of anxiety and guilt about past sins need to learn to love ourselves. This comes in the light of God’s great love for us. We must first believe He has forgiven us our sins when we have truly repented. He does not hold an accusing finger pointing towards us, nor has he been counting our faults with the intention of paying us back with future punishment. Once we have repented we receive the free gift of His forgiveness. Basking in the sure knowledge of His unconditional love for us we can let go of the condemning attitude we have had toward ourselves. Looking into the merciful eyes of Jesus we find ourselves again.”