Etched in Ink and Blood
No doubt, it was a question no Marian at the National Shrine of TheDivine Mercy had ever been asked before.
"Is a tattoo considered a religious article?"
Jim Bombard wasn't being a wise guy. He and his wife Susan were visiting the Shrine in June to follow the daily afternoon schedule, which ends with a blessing of religious articles. Holding out his beefy left forearm to better expose the portrait of a scourged Jesus Christ, Jim posed the question to seminarian Br. John, MIC, before Mass began. Brother John leaned in to get a better look at the tea-saucer-sized tattoo ringed with the words "Merciful Love." He was impressed.
Bottom line, that afternoon following Mass, when the priest moved down the aisle sprinkling holy water with his aspergillum, Shrine visitors held up rosaries, prayercards, and crucifixes, and Jim held out his left arm. And indeed, no one would argue that Jim's tattoo doesn't conform to the fundamental character of a religious article: It has helped people grow in faith, beginning the moment two years ago when the artist put down his needle and swiped the tattoo with sterilizing alcohol.
A New Chapter Begins
Of the thousands of annual Shrine visitors, everyone has a story to tell of the factors that lead them here. For Jim and his wife Susan of Worcester, Mass., their June visit wasn't based solely on getting a tattoo blessed. More so, it served as the launch of their joint retirement, which began the day prior.
"We came here because we wanted to start this new chapter of our lives asking the Lord for His mercy and giving thanks to Him for all the graces He has given us," said Jim.
Still, that permanent mark on his arm serves as a fitting symbol for the inner inscription Jesus has placed upon their hearts — an inscription to trust in Him. Like a tattoo, surrendering to the Lord's will didn't come about without pain.
Jim and Susan were born within 10 minutes of each other 70 years ago. They married when they were 18-years old. But what God joined together in holy matrimony, Jim nearly tore apart. Looking back, he said he wanted things both ways — a family life and a free-range standard of living confined to no perimeters.
"I led the life of the sinner," he says, "gambling, drinking, and the things that go along with that. I remember I would dress our girls up all nice and pretty, and we would all go to church, but I was a hypocrite."
For years, Susan prayed to the Blessed Mother for his reconversion. He attributes her prayers to a burning need he felt a few years back to enter a confessional for the first time in 30 years. "I cried my eyes out to the priest," Jim recalled.
His life irrevocably changed, beginning in that confessional.
Cover to Cover
From his days as a churchgoing lad of hearty Polish stock, Jim had an inkling of God's love for poor sinners, but after Susan presented him with St. Faustina's Diary following that day in the confessional, Jesus' greatest attribute — mercy — was confirmed for him. He read the Diary cover to cover.
"In the Diary that term 'merciful love' kept popping out at me," Jim said. "I knew I wanted to meet God, and I knew that in order to meet God I would have to fess up, and ever since, He has continued to show His mercy, and it's been incredible.
"I thank Him," Jim said, "and I thank the three most wonderful women in my life — the Blessed Mother, St. Faustina, and Susan."
Among the many graces he has experienced since his reconversion was seeing his eldest of four daughters brought back from the brink of death. She and her boyfriend had become heavily involved in substance abuse. They had a young child. The situation was a mess. Susan and Jim brought the couple to a healing Mass. Through that and many, many prayers, the couple recovered their health and faith. They married in June.
"There have been so many things that have happened," said Jim. "I could tell you some stories.
Here's one such story. It's about a repentant sinner and a tattoo.
Not Really a 'Tattoo Guy'
A former trucker, garrulous, and with a mischievous twinkle in the eyes, Jim seems a likely candidate for a tattoo. "But I'm not really a 'tattoo guy,'" he said.
Still, two years ago he was given a prayercard that had an image of Jesus, bloodied and beaten and crowned with thorns.
"Every time I looked at it, it ripped my heart out," he said. "I looked at it, and I knew I was just as responsible for His agony as everyone else. It touched me to the point where I couldn't put it down."
So he decided on the tattoo. Susan wasn't thrilled with the idea. "But I knew there was more to it than just getting a tattoo," she said.
Jim gritted his teeth as thousands of pigment-inserting punctures were made into his skin. It took three hours. While it's not unusual for the skin to bleed from a newly etched tattoo, in Jim's case, when the tattoo artist wiped the skin clean, blood began to pool precisely on the rendered wounds of Christ — and nowhere else on the tattoo. The tattoo artist was floored. He insisted on taking photos of it. Four other people in the parlor gathered around and were equally astonished. They, too, snapped photos.
"I feel like the Lord visited me in a tattoo parlor," Jim said with a laugh
Since then, the tattoo has been an instrument of evangelization.
"I'm not a preacher," says Jim, "not at all. But it does give me opportunities on a regular basis when people ask about it, or focus on it, to talk about Jesus' love for us — that no one's sin is greater than God's mercy."
For that reason, he wears short sleeves, even into the chillier months.
"Susan tells me that all you can do is plant the seed, and God will do the watering," Jim said. "I'm sure the tattoo has helped people in ways I'll never know."
Before the Bombards left the Shrine to continue the new chapter of their lives, Jim shared a parting thought.
"Anyone who comes to this Shrine and thinks they're not worthy of His mercy, please call me. Call me," he said. "I'll tell them some stories."
+ + +
For the Church's teaching on tattoos, here it is.