by Fr. Dave Kelly, C.PP.S., Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation Director
Being in a ministry that seeks reconciliation and as a student of Bob Schreiter, C.PP.S., I have wrestled often with the question of forgiveness. As a kid, when I or one of my brothers or sisters got into a fight, my mom would often intervene and demand that we stand face to face and apologize to one another. She would then demand that we forgive each other. With her as the supreme negotiator, it seemed simple enough. I haven’t found it quite that simple as an adult.
In sacred scripture we hear the call to forgiveness throughout the gospels: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive him? As many as seven times?.” Peter receives the answer: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:221-22). We hear the teaching of forgiveness when his disciples ask about praying. Jesus says that in their prayer they should ask, ….”forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt 6:12). He goes on to add, “For if you forgive others trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:14-15).
We witness Jesus in the gospels offering forgiveness often. He grants forgiveness to the paralytic man (Mt 9:6), to the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11), and asks his Father in heaven to forgive those who nailed him to the cross (Lk 23:34). Forgiveness is central to who we are and how we are to live as Christians. The forgiveness offered so generously by our God is to be shared with others.
Interest in forgiveness is not limited to a theological discussion. Psychologists have written much on the power of forgiveness in recovery from the unimaginable violence of the Holocaust, the horrors of war, and the violence experienced in our personal lives. Forgiveness and reconciliation have become central in the work of peace organizations and those—such as John Paul Lederach—who have dedicated their lives to peacebuilding. Nelson Mandela taught us of the power forgiveness and reconciliation in the wake so much violence and hatred in South Africa.
What, then, do we mean by forgiveness? Raymond Helmick, S.J. says that forgiveness can only be when I accept the human dignity of a person as worthy of love. It doesn’t mean that you ignore or deny the harm done, but that the person is not defined solely on the wrong he/she has committed. Seeing the person who has done the harm as more than the act itself is critical to being able to forgive.
On more than one occasion, I have witnessed families being torn apart after losing a child to homicide. After the death of their son, Patricia and her family were consumed with anger and guilt. That anger and hate was mostly directed outward toward the one who had killed their 17 year old son, but they also carried a guilt that was directed inward, and it consumed them. They held themselves responsible, living in a neighborhood where their son was forced to cross several gang lines on his way to school. The anger and guilt began to smother the love they had as family.
We are reminded by psychologists of the toll anger and hate has on the human person. The violence and trauma become imbedded in our bodies, wreaking havoc with our health and our view of the world. Children are particularly vulnerable.
According to noted psychologist Judith Herman, traumatic events call into question basic human relationships. They breach the attachments of family, friendship, love, and community. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience.
Just as violence is a violation of relationships, so, too, recovery happens in relationships. Part of our work with individuals and families who have suffered from violence is to create a place where their feelings—even hate and anger—can be brought into the light, where the pain can be expressed without fear of judgment. It became a place where Patricia was able to realize that she was not alone. As she shared her anger and what it was doing to her family, others shared their stories as well.
More than two years later, Patricia still has tears in her eyes as she speaks of her son Carlos. But today she is no longer defined merely by his death, but has begun to discover a purpose and a new meaning in the pain she carries. She is discovering that in the midst of the pain, there is emerging a new person.
Patricia is beginning to talk more openly about the one who killed her son. She is beginning to see not only the horrific act of murder, but also someone who, in spite of his crime, is a human person. She is beginning to be able to see beyond the sin to a young man who also has a family and a mother—a mother who has lost her child as well.
When we are able to see beyond the sinful act, to a person worthy of love, we make room for the possibility of forgiveness. We need only to recall the life of Nelson Mandela, who—perhaps more than anyone in modern times—demonstrated the power of forgiveness. His willingness to see beyond the sin, allowed South Africa to begin to move away from the destructive path of apartheid to one in which reconciliation became imaginable. Maya Angelou remarked of Mandela that his willingness to forgive allowed him truly to be free.
Of course there is a risk to being open to forgiveness. It is not an easy option, nor one that can be demanded of any other than oneself. But it is a path that leads to freedom and, ultimately, it is a gift from God.