John Wayne in a Marian Grotto (Credit: Pinterest via ChurchPOP)

John Wayne was loved for the heroic men he played in the movies. But was he a real-life hero? What if I told you he was divorced twice? And what if I told you he often joked that he was a cardiac-Catholic—one who would find religion on his deathbed? And what if I told you that actually happened?

Many know “Duke” died a slow death caused by stomach cancer, but not as many faithful fans may be aware that he used that time to consider his fate and remember back to those times when his ex-wives—both Catholic—exposed him to the beauties of their faith and the real-life heroism of Christianity. Those seeds of faith stayed planted deep in his heart and sprouted to life as he lay dying in 1979. The result was a deathbed conversion to Catholicism.

Was God as impressed by this cardiac Catholic as his rabid fans were, or was this just another role the Duke was playing? There’s something for his Catholic fans to ponder as they listen to Sunday’s Mass readings. They’ll be reminded that God doesn’t think like we do. For any of us thinking we’re wise enough to answer this question, here’s what Paul told the Corinthians (1 Cor 3:16-23):

If any one among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool, so as to become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God,
for it is written:
God catches the wise in their own ruses,” and again:The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.”

In Sunday’s gospel reading (Mt 5:38-48), Jesus warns us not to succumb to our human reflexes by making kneejerk judgments. God’s ways are not ours.

He makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

So—did the cardiac Catholic whose fans elevated to Dukedom actually die with the heart of a pagan? After all, he “got religion” in the last few minutes of his earthly life. How could God judge that as sufficient time to become a true hero in faith by our clock? Again, let Jesus answer that by way of his parable of the landowner who angered his all-day laborers by paying his last-minute hires the same sum he gave them for their work that day.

Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

In keeping with that lesson, let’s end this post with Sunday’s first reading—taken from the beginning of the Bible, in the Book of Leviticus (Lv 19:1-2, 17-18). In it, God tells us that instead of worrying about something like what was in John Wayne’s dying heart, we should adopt the standard He gave Moses to bring human hearts back to heroic life:

Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

–Tom Andel