Commit to forgiveness for Lent

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” Jesus said as his executioners crucified him and onlookers reviled him. These are challenging, radical words, and the forgiveness that Jesus asks of us is an important part of making this Lent one of deep conversion.

C.S. Lewis captured the difficulty of Christ’s standard when he wrote in his book “Mere Christianity,” “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”

Jesus’ radical call to forgiveness is repeated each time we pray the Our Father and utter that all important word “as,” “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” At the conclusion of teaching the Our Father, Jesus reinforces the point, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6: 14).

I am sure that there is not a single person in the world who hasn’t been hurt by someone else and come up against the challenge of forgiveness.

On March 8, at the Beacon of Hope Gala sponsored by Catholic Charities for women’s services and the Lighthouse, Gianna Jessen, a survivor of a saline abortion and the inspiration for the film “October Baby,” addressed more than 850 people. She spoke of how through Jesus she eventually forgave her natural mother and the doctor who performed the attempted abortion. She spoke of how that forgiveness freed her from bitterness, hatred and holding grudges. Her mother, however, refused to receive her forgiveness and told her “you are an embarrassment to our family.” While Gianna has experienced the freedom and joy forgiveness brings, her mother is still held bound by hatred.

No one should have to suffer an injustice, and yet, all of us inevitably do.

This challenge presents us with a choice between holding on to our anger and hurt, or letting go of it, trusting in God’s eternal justice and praying for those who have harmed us.

Father Jean Bernard, who survived the Dachau concentration camp just outside of Munich during World War II, lived through the spiritual and emotional journey of forgiveness at a level that none of us will hopefully have to.

In his book “Priestblock 25487,” Father Bernard insists on forgiveness, despite the treatment he received from the Nazis: “We must forgive while remaining conscious of the full horror of what occurred, not only because nothing constructive can be built on a foundation of hatred—neither a new Europe nor a new world—but above all for the sake of him who commands and urges us to forgive, and before whom we, victims and executioners alike, are all poor debtors in need of mercy.”

Forgiveness, as Father Bernard points out, is not limited just to forgiving others. It also involves asking God’s forgiveness for those who have harmed us—the executioners in his story, and the doctor and the mother in Gianna’s story—and then being willing to receive the gift of God’s mercy in return. For it is only in receiving the mercy of the Father and Jesus that we are truly set free.

We Catholics are blessed with the beautiful gift of the sacrament of confession (John 20:22-23) that Jesus gave us so that we could encounter his mercy in-person. When we confess our sins to a priest, we are speaking to Jesus and it is he who forgives our sins, once again reconciling us with himself, the Father and the Holy Spirit. Confession is always available at your parish, but on March 20, confession will be available at almost every parish between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. as part of the “Light is On for You” campaign.

I urge you my brothers and sisters to examine your consciences this week, and if there is any place in your heart that lacks forgiveness of another, bring it to Jesus in the sacrament of reconciliation. Pray for this grace: “Jesus grant to me the grace to forgive as you forgive, to pray for my enemies as you prayed for yours.”

“But what does it look like to live out Jesus’ call to forgiveness in a world like today’s?” you might ask.

Christ calls us to live lives of forgiveness and reconciliation, but this does not mean that we are called to be “pushovers” who close our eyes to sin and darkness and the horror that sin and hatred bring about. Jesus exhorts us to be as “wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.”

These two commands might appear to be contradictory, but they are not.

The world we live in is one where the truth is constantly attacked and distorted. One only has to look at the ways Pope Francis’ words are taken out of context to justify numerous different agendas. Being a person of forgiveness and reconciliation in this culture means proposing the Gospel without watering down the truth, since, without the full truth we cannot repent, receive forgiveness, and be free and filled with the joy Jesus desires for us.

At the same time, Christ commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, so we must not allow our hearts to be turned against them with hatred, bitterness and vengefulness. This does not mean accepting untruths or immorality being promoted by our enemies, but it does mean forgiving the wrong they do to us and to the world, and seeking their salvation in a spirit of charity.

May the Holy Spirit fill your heart with a desire to forgive so that you can live a life reconciled with God and man, so that our world becomes a place of peace transformed by the joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”