Could a convicted killer be a saint? That bizarre question has been preoccupying the Catholic Church in France as it moves to have a man beatified half a century after he was guillotined for shooting a policeman during a bungled robbery.

"Of course, it would be unusual to declare an executed murderer Blessed -- the only comparison would be with the good thief crucified alongside Christ," said professor Jean Duchesne, president of a Paris diocesan commission. "But this particular killer considered his own execution a gift from God. The message is that God still cares for someone who's been legally sentenced to death and executed. No one is so completely beyond God's love."

Duchesne was responding to criticisms of the beatification cause of Jacques Fesch (1930-57), who underwent a death-cell conversion after a life of crime. When the cause was launched under a 1993 decree, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, then the archbishop of Paris, said he hoped it gave "hope to those who despise themselves, who see themselves as irredeemably lost."

The diocesan commission has come close to completing its documentation, collecting witness testimonies and studying more than a thousand letters by Fesch, mostly written to his brother and mother-in-law. The killer's postulator, Father Henri Moreau, hopes to forward the case to the Vatican's Congregation for Saints' Causes next year.

"The tabloid press has objected that beatifying a murderer would be an insult to society. It's a good illustration of how far the Catholic Church has traveled from the social mainstream; it's no longer afraid of going against popular sentiment," said Duchesne, who teaches at Paris' Condorcet College. "But it also depends on the popular cult that's been spontaneously developing around Fesch, attributing miracles to him and identifying lessons his story teaches."

Born at Saint-Germain-en-Laye into a wealthy banking family, Fesch was brought up a Catholic, but gave up the faith after his parents divorced over his father's persistent adultery. Expelled from school for laziness and misconduct, he married his girlfriend, Pierrette Polack, in a civil ceremony at age 21 when she became pregnant.

Though offered a position in his father's bank, Fesch soon quit this, too. He also left Pierrette and their daughter, Veronique, and fathered an illegitimate son with another girlfriend. Disillusioned with life, he hatched a madcap plan to sail to the South Pacific. When his parents refused to pay for a boat, he cast around for other ways of getting the money.

On Feb. 24, 1954, Fesch attempted to rob Alexandre Sylberstein, a money changer, of 300,000 francs at his shop near Paris' stock exchange. Sylberstein was struck over the head with a revolver, but raised the alarm. Fesch fled, losing his glasses. When a 35-year-old police officer, Jean Vergne, tried to stop him, he pulled out the gun and killed him with three shots.

The crowd chased Fesch into a nearby metro station, where he was eventually surrounded and pinned down. Vilified by the French press, he showed no remorse at his trial and was duly sentenced to death.

Firm conviction

During his first year at La Sante prison, Fesch mocked the Catholic faith of his sympathetic lawyer, Paul Baudet. On the night of Feb. 28, 1955, however, everything changed.

"I was in bed, eyes open, really suffering for the first time," the killer recorded. "It was then a cry burst from my breast, an appeal for help. Instantly, like a violent wind which passes over without anyone knowing where it comes from, the spirit of the Lord seized me by the throat. I had an impression of infinite power and kindness and, from that moment onward, I believed with an unshakeable conviction that has never left me."

Fesch recorded his spiritual path in a journal. It was preserved by Pierette, to whom he was reconciled the night before he was beheaded at age 27 on Oct. 1, 1957, in the yard of the La Sante.

Although President René Coty expressed respect for Fesch in a letter to Baudet, saying he "wanted very much to reprieve him," he rejected his appeal for clemency because it would place other police in danger. According to witnesses, Fesch's last words before the blade fell were, "Holy Virgin, have pity on me."

The prison writings were studied by a Carmelite nun who knew the family, and have since formed the basis for three regularly reprinted best-sellers, "Light on the Scaffold," "Cell 18" and "In Five Hours I shall see Jesus," the last title taken from Fesch's final journal entry.

A bad example?

Calls for Fesch's beatification, however, have provoked bitterness. Though generally accepting his sincerity, French newspapers have warned the move could incite other offenders to use claims of conversion to avoid punishment. One editorial predicted ironically that Fesch could soon become the "patron saint of gunmen" who would be encouraged to pack a votive medal of "St. Jacques" alongside their Magnum 357s.

Joaquin Masanet, secretary of France's Union of Police Services (UNSA), points out that eight police officers were killed on duty in 2007. Surely others were "more deserving," Masanet said.

"I doubt the majority of French Catholics will understand this beatification," the French police chief told the Catholic Infocatho newsagency in February. "We are against this step toward rehabilitating the murderer of a policeman who was also the father of a family engaged in his duty. The police don't expect the killer of one of their number to become a saint."

Heartfelt conversion

However, Jesuit Father Paolo Molinari, a postulator with the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, thinks the objections could be outweighed by Fesch's powerful testimony.

"Media and public reactions are obviously important in forming social attitudes, and while the Church would not be explicitly influenced by them, it will certainly be aware of them," Father Molinari told Our Sunday Visitor. "But it is theoretically possible for a murderer to be a saint, provided there's solid proof he went through a genuine conversion. His previous life would have to be looked at, too, along with the circumstances of his crime and conviction."

Besides bitterly regretting his crime, Fesch recounted in his journal how he had "heard a voice not of this world, saying 'Jacques, you are receiving graces from your death.'" The killer made his confession and received Communion before his execution, recording his belief that he had been saved by God, "despite myself," by being "withdrawn from a world where I was lost." He was later said by the prison's Dominican chaplain to have "died a great Christian."

Story of salvation

Professor Duchesne says the prison writings of Fesch, whose tomb at Saint-Germain-en-Laye cemetery receives anonymous flowers and prayer requests, are regularly studied by Church groups, while at least a dozen books have been published about him in his native France.

The Church has kept the murderer's widow and daughter informed about his sainthood cause, Duchesne says, along with his son, Gerard, and grandsons. The daughter of the slain policeman, Jean Vergne, has also privately met with Church leaders.

"Though the death penalty passed on Fesch can be viewed as excessive and useless, it must be stressed that his beatification process has nothing to with any revision of his conviction," Duchesne said. "What really matters are the fruits Fesch's example might eventually bear."

Is the Church looking out for cases like this to offer as examples of conversion and redemption to a Western world confronted by moral dissoluteness? Father Molinari is cautious.

The pope has urged bishops to be careful in ascertaining the sensusfidelium, or feelings of the faithful, before proceeding with beatification cases. But the Church also needs personal examples of salvation, those who, despite sins and failures, went on to achieve saintliness and positive influences.

"Such stories are pastorally important today, and could merit special consideration as signs from God to his Church," the Vatican-based Jesuit said. "But we can also expect controversy and should be ready for plenty of problems along the way."

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.