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Mary Marrocco: A story of true joy amid the anguish

  • July 2, 2021

During a shared reflection on a scriptural text one evening, a young man asked about joy. Was something wrong with him because he rarely experienced joy? Was he being punished for his mental suffering? What is joy, and do we even have any right to feel it when there is so much suffering?

Joy is difficult to describe. Feeling happy and being joyful are not the same thing, nor even the same kind of thing. Joy is of a different order, as hard to understand as prayer. John Paul II said “prayer is understood through prayer.” Could it be that joy is understood through joy? Or, perhaps, through suffering?

We may be surprised by the places and times where joy springs out and the people who teach us about joy. They might be on the “peripheries” Pope Francis points us towards.

Such a teacher — on the periphery — is another young man, named Jacques. His letters, kept by those who accompanied and guided him, are vivid and full of personality. He never studied theology but had a gift for putting into words the depths of his experience and growing spiritual understanding. He knew how to wrestle. If I could, I would make a painting of young Jacques wrestling the angel like Jacob all through the night, being wounded by love and in the process becoming who he was meant to be.

His writings give insight into his suffering and the inner movement he underwent in the final three years of his young life. Even so, we can’t fully know his soul or all he experienced. His agony, and the reworking of his shattered heart, cannot be appreciated except by walking with him step by painful step. Reading his letters gives an enlightening opportunity to accompany him through the shame, helplessness and despair through which he travelled.

During those last three years and several months of his life, his outer world completely changed. At age 23, soon after being imprisoned, he had a conversion to the Catholic faith he was baptized into. He was never released from solitary confinement, spending three years in a cell awaiting trial and the final months awaiting execution. 

During these same years, his inner world was entirely reworked, as iron is worked by fire. He experienced the pain of being despised and rejected by almost everyone. He knew the anguish of being unable to change his own destructive actions or escape responsibility for them and their dreadful consequences, from the robbery he attempted to the murder he accidentally committed in the process. He saw the suffering of his family, including the impoverishment and humiliation of his wife and daughter, and carried the constant burden of the harm he had done them from the beginning.

"Everything comes back to the love of Jesus."

- Jacques Fesch

Towards the end, even the one human comfort of writing was being taken from him, as his hand could no longer hold the pen.

Not surprisingly, his is a story of anguish. Surprisingly, it is also a story of joy. Four of the letters written in the last two months of his life, when his external reality was the most excruciating, are “letters of joy.” Joy seeps, trickles, flows and rushes in and through them.

They show that joy is a gift, but also a struggle. He writes that he had never experienced joy in his life before, never until these last two months — in solitary confinement in a French prison, under the terror he had of the guillotine. As a free man, he knew a world of failure and emptiness. He did not know joy until it met him in his cell.

He came to recognize that joy is deeper than even the most profound emotion. After days spent in joy would come days of desolation or anguish, which did not negate the joy, but helped him accept and discover it. 

Perhaps this is the difference between Heaven and Earth: In Heaven there is joy without suffering, but here suffering can help us become a place where joy can dwell.

Jacques’ agony remained until his execution in the early morning of Oct. 1, 1957. So did his joy.

As he dared to put his joy in writing, his compassion flowered: for his afflicted wife, his young daughter, perhaps above all his father, whom he had the hardest time loving but for whose life and faith he devoted his last days. He offered his death for them, for his own illegitimate son and the policeman he killed. His triumph was that, though he could not escape execution, he could offer his own death as a gift of love — through anguish — and, most surprisingly, in joy.

“How can I express my joy to you! … 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” — Jacques Fesch, Aug. 15, 1957 (from Light Over the Scaffold).

(Marrocco can be reached at

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