(The American Catholic will observe its tenth anniversary in October. We will be reposting some classic TAC posts of the past. This post is from May 3, 2015.)
When I was a kid I watched way too much TV. How little of those hours I can recall now! However there is one television show that I watched that has always stayed with me. On October 25, 1971, when I was a freshman in high school, a Gunsmoke episode aired entitled Trafton. The guest star of the episode was character actor Victor French, who would make twenty-three appearances on Gunsmoke, usually portraying a villain. The Trafton episode was no exception. He portrayed a gunman known simply as Trafton. A murderer, Trafton had learned the gunman’s trade while riding with Confederate raider “Bloody Bill” Anderson during the War. The episode opens with Trafton and his gang shooting up a town in New Mexico. They attempt to rob the bank, only to find that the vault contains no money. Frustrated, on his way out of town Trafton sees a Catholic Church. He enters the Church and goes up to the altar, and takes a gold cross, a gold communion chalice and a gold paten. The priest appears and tries to stop him, Trafton unhesitatingly gunning down the priest. Seeing a gold cross about the neck of the dying priest, Trafton stoops down to remove the cross. As he does so the priest with his last strength, to the utter astonishment of Trafton, says, “I forgive you.” and with his bloody right hand traces a cross on the forehead of Trafton just before he dies. Trafton uneasily touches his forehead, and then leaves the Church and rides off.
Outside of town Trafton orders his gang, at gunpoint, to leave him, sans their horses and guns, when they attempt to demand a share of the loot from the Church. He guns down a member of his gang when he draws on Trafton. About to ride off, the gut shot gang member begs him to put him out of his misery. To his astonishment Trafton finds that he is unable to pull the trigger. He uneasily touches his forehead, and then gets out a bottle of whiskey to give to the dying man to drink. The man dies. Instead of leaving him for the vultures and the coyotes Trafton buries him and we see him looking amazed as he even makes a cross for the grave from twigs. Trafton realizes to his dismay that something has changed within him.
I won’t say any more about the episode other than to note that the ending is unforgettable and that it underlines that atonement for sins must go along with absolution. Go here to watch the episode. Such almost instant conversions are not unknown. A famous highwayman in the Middle Ages was about to knife his latest victim when he head the bells ringing at a nearby monastery. He dropped his knife and went off immediately to join the monks. The grace of God can come like lightning out of the blue just as it can be a slow and steady build up over many years.
I assume one reason that the episode has stayed in my memory all of these years is because of my personal belief that God, before each of us end our journey through this Vale of Tears, particularly perhaps for the worst of us, gives us one last opportunity for repentance and redemption. It is up to us as to what we do with this opportunity. Trafton the murderer and rapist, much against his will initially, seized it with both hands. May each of us do likewise.