“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!