This column contains six vignettes of encounters in which I was the beneficiary of others' mercy. I hope this remembrance of my experiences will stimulate your own reflections on ways mercy has graced your life.

Off the sidelines
A senior at LaSalle Institute in Troy, I was the second-string center and linebacker on the football team. Pat Martone played as starting center and linebacker and was indestructible -- so, unfortunately, I put plenty of time into practice, but hadn't played a down on game day.

Our last game was against Albany's Cathedral Academy. By the fourth quarter, we had developed a 24-6 lead, so our legendary coach, Dom Denio, called out, "Alright; time for the shock troops to go on the field."

I thought to myself, "At long last!" Picking up my helmet, I headed for the gridiron when Coach Denio called out, "Hubbard, get back here."

"Oh, no -- I won't even play in our last game," I thought. If you didn't play in any varsity game during the season, you weren't eligible to earn a letter, which was usually sewn on a sweater, an indication you were a bona fide team member.

As I dejectedly headed back to the sidelines, Coach Denio beckoned me over and said, "I called you back because I want you to serve as the captain. You handle all the decisions about the formations to be employed and discuss with the referees whether we want to accept a penalty or not."

What a special honor! I went from crestfallen to elated, all because Coach Denio had mercy on a lowly senior backup who had the desire, but not the talent. His mercy taught me that I should always look for ways to acknowledge those who contribute, but never or rarely share the limelight.

Behind the wheel
A month after the football season was over, during the Thanksgiving break, a classmate who had his driver's license asked me to take a spin in his father's car. While we were out, he urged me to drive the car myself.

I explained that I didn't have a driver's permit and shouldn't get behind the wheel. However, he convinced me that by going to his parish cemetery, St. Joseph's, located on an isolated hill in the south end of Troy, nobody would ever know, as there would be no traffic or pedestrians around.

Well, the latter was true, but there was a fresh coat of snow on the ground. As I started very slowly down the steep cemetery road, the car hit a patch of ice. Out of panic and inexperience, I hit the accelerator instead of the brake. The car skidded and wound up on top of one of the gravestones.

The caretaker came quickly to the scene and, despite our pleading, he was convinced we were on a joyride through the cemetery. He called the rectory and the associate pastor, Rev. Don Doyle, was sent to evaluate the situation. Father Doyle couldn't have been more kind, compassionate and understanding. "I suppose I should call the police," he said. "But you seem to be telling the truth, and if you cover the cost for repairing the damaged gravestone, that will resolve the matter."

This act of mercy on Father Doyle's part probably saved my vocation. If law enforcement became involved, I could have been charged for driving without a permit - and vandalism, to boot. Such a record might well have scuttled my subsequent application to the seminary.

The merciful and non-judgmental response of Father Doyle saved me a lot of trouble and, arguably, my priestly vocation.

Expelled from school!
From kindergarten through third grade, I attended Haskell public school in the Lansingburgh School District, on the same block where my family lived. When my youngest sister, Kathy, entered the first grade, my parents enrolled her, my sister Joan and myself at our parish school of St. Patrick's in central Troy, about a mile away.

I must admit that, initially, I was reluctant to make the switch of schools. It meant leaving behind the many schoolmates I had grown close to, traveling a longer distance to school and not knowing a soul in my class.

Fortunately, of the two fourth-grade classes, I was placed in the classroom taught by Sister Olive Marie (Sister Monica Hogan), who couldn't have been more welcoming, kind, gentle, and was an excellent teacher.

There was just one problem: The student sitting behind me was the class troublemaker. He was always being chastised for disrupting the class. In addition to his unruly classroom demeanor, he would taunt me constantly by poking me in the back with his sharply-pointed pen or pencil.

I put up with his misbehavior for much of the year, but by the spring I had enough. I warned him to cease and desist or I was going to retaliate. One day, he was particularly obnoxious, so I turned around in my chair and popped him in the face, giving him a bloody nose.

The following day I was summoned to the rectory to meet with our new pastor, Msgr. William Hunt, who had just arrived a month previously. Apparently, the mother of my nemesis went to see the pastor the night before and demanded I be punished for striking her son and bloodying his nose.

Msgr. Hunt proceeded to upbraid me for my unruly behavior and formally expelled me from the school. I was to clear out my desk and never return.

The next few hours were a blur. Here I was, 10 years old, my schoolbag overflowing with books, pencils, pens and pads, and scared stiff about how angry my parents would be and whether I would ever be admitted to another school.

I walked around the neighborhood till darkness fell and I couldn't avoid the consequences any longer. When I arrived home, my mother was waiting by the door. "Do you have something to tell me?" she asked.

With tears streaming down my face, I informed her that the pastor had expelled me from school for fighting. My mother came over and hugged me, saying, "Don't worry; Sister Olive Marie just called. She learned what happened and went to see Msgr. Hunt immediately. Sister informed him that you had been traumatized all year long by the other student and was his long-suffering victim. She advised that the other boy was the one who should be expelled."

Msgr. Hunt weighed Sister Olive Marie's input and decided that neither would be expelled. However, I would be given a new seat in the classroom and the other lad would be isolated from the rest of the class. Mercy abounded and we were both given a chance for a new start!

As Mom lay dying
Bucky G. was a street hustler, pimp and drug dealer who shot a rival dealer on Christmas Eve 1972. His family called me at my mother's home in Troy, where she lay dying of cancer. The family wanted me to arrange for Bucky's bail.

The request couldn't have been more untimely. I knew it would be my mother's last Christmas and I wanted to be with her. I certainly didn't want to leave her alone and sick on Christmas Eve.

When I explained the dilemma to my mother, she looked me in the eye and said, "You're a priest. This man and his family have reached out to you for help. Just as Jesus emptied Himself on the first Christmas to become one with us, now is the time for you to empty yourself, without regard for family or personal needs."

I'll never forget my mother's response. Her simple yet profound maternal wisdom about what the priesthood really is reminded me why we priests need to empty ourselves to witness to the world God's unconditional love.

Reconciled with God
Karen was a lapsed Catholic. She worked as a nurse in the intensive care unit at the Albany Medical Center and became rather disillusioned by the suffering and trauma she witnessed on a daily basis. How could a caring and loving God allow such suffering -- people dying from heart attacks, cancer, auto accidents and drownings - as well as permit the inconsolate grief of family members left to mourn the passing of a loved one? Overwhelmed by all of this, Karen lost her faith and became rather skeptical and cynical.

In 1978, I conducted a TV retreat, "Always His People," in which I had the opportunity to reflect on some central themes of the Christian life -- including the problem of suffering and the mystery of the cross. I also invited people who were alienated from the life of the Church to give it another try. Karen did, and discovered a renewed love for Christ and the Church, and a deeper understanding of how sickness and death can be redemptive and life-giving. She returned to the Church, became active in her parish, and each Thanksgiving ever since has written me a moving letter reminding me of the joy she has experienced in returning to the fold.

I not only look forward to her annual expression of gratitude, but it is a wonderful reminder of God's mercy at the heart of reconciliation.

Message from Rocco
Rocco is an inmate at Great Meadows Correctional Facility in Comstock. I've known him since I began doing confirmation at the facility. I never asked him why he was incarcerated, but since he has been there for the 38 years I have served as Bishop in our Diocese, and even prior to that, I assume it's for some major offense, like murder in the first degree.

In 2003, at the height of the sexual abuse crisis in our nation and in our Diocese, I was celebrating confirmation at the prison. After the liturgy, Rocco asked if he could speak with me.

He said, "Bishop, I was watching you during the course of Mass today, and you looked very stressed and pained. I know it may seem strange for someone like myself to be offering advice to a bishop, but the Spirit has moved me to share this message with you."

Then, with tears in his eyes, he said, "Bishop, trust in the Master. Trust in the Master!'"

This is a very simple message of mercy, but one that I really needed to hear at a very dark moment in my life, and made all the more powerful by the prolonged suffering and pain which has been experienced by the one who delivered the message.

Merciful God
These vignettes capture spontaneous expressions of people reflecting God's compassionate mercy -- our God who is always looking for ways to embrace us, to console us, to heal us, to forgive us and to lavish us with His unconditional love. May this jubilee Year of Mercy be a time for each of us to recall God's boundless mercy and to give thanks to God and to all the personal gifts employed by God to open the many doors of mercy we are privileged to pass through on our life's journey.