August 17, 2009


The importance of forgiveness should be obvious from the Gospels themselves where it is centrally featured in both the preaching and praxis of Jesus. The forgiveness even of enemies is insisted upon in the Sermon on the Mount, and the pardoning of those who trespass against us is at the heart of the prayer that Jesus taught his church. But more to the point, Jesus’ own startling practice of forgiving the sins of others emerges as one of the distinctive and most controversial elements in his ministry: “Why does this fellow speak this way? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). And both rhetoric and practice reach their fullest expression when the crucified Jesus asks the Father to forgive those who are torturing him to death and when the risen Jesus says “Shalom” to those who have abandoned him, We speak the truth because Jesus is the Truth; we forgive because he forgave.

But what exactly is forgiveness? We must not, despite our typically modern tendency to do so, subjectivize and interiorize forgiveness, as though it amounted to little more than a conviction or a resolution. To say, “I have put that offense out of my mind and have resolved to move on” is not forgiveness; even to feel no further anger at someone who has hurt me and to refrain from harming that person is not tantamount to real forgiveness. Forgiveness, in the full New Testament sense of the term, is an act and not an attitude. It is the active and embodied repairing of a broken relationship, even in the face of opposition, violence, or indifference. When a relationship is severed, each party should, in justice, do his part to reestablish the bond, Forgiveness — which of necessity transcends justice — is the bearing of the other person’s burden, moving toward her, even when she refuses to move an inch toward you. There is something relentless, even aggressive, about forgiveness, since it amounts to a refusal ever to give up on a relationship. “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother? Seven times?” Simon Peter asks Jesus; comes the reply: “I assure you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” Christians should never cease in our efforts to establish love.

Stanley Hauerwas relates a terrible story of authentic forgiveness. There was an Amish family — a father, a mother, and their teenaged son — riding along, as was their custom, in a horse-drawn buggy. Behind them came a car filled with rowdy and impatient young people. Annoyed at the slow-moving carriage, they honked the horn and waved their fists in aggravation. Finally, in a swirl of dust, they rushed around the Amish. As they passed, one of the young men in the car hurled a stone in the direction of the horse, hoping just to harass the family. Instead, the stone hit the Amish boy in the head, killing him instantly. The town was outraged, and the young killer came to trial for manslaughter. To everyone’s amazement, the parents of the slain teenager, still crippled by grief, appeared to testify on behalf of the stone-thrower. Despite this testimony, the young man was condemned and sent to prison. Now, every month, the Amish parents come to the jail and visit their son’s slayer, comforting him, encouraging him, seeking to bring him back eventually into the community. That is forgiveness.

A similar story unfolded in Chicago in 1995. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was accused of having sexually abused a young man, Steven Cook, years before, when Cook was a seminarian and the cardinal was archbishop of Cincinnati. When the story became public, the cardinal appeared before dozens of cameras and hundreds of reporters at a wrenching news conference. As his image and the terrible charge were transmitted all over the world, he had to endure the most humiliating and intrusive questions, under the literally glaring light of publicity. In the ensuing weeks, he endured a sort of Garden of Gethsemane. Following his usual busy public schedule, he would appear at Masses, gatherings, and social events, and, as the people turned to face him, he knew, to his infinite shame, that many of them probably believed the charge against him. During that period, the cardinal came to Mundelein Seminary where I teach, and he addressed the seminarians. He told them that when he prayed, he now stretched himself out full on the floor and begged God to take this suffering from him.

Eventually Steven Cook admitted that his accusations were groundless, and the charges were withdrawn. At this point, who would have blamed Cardinal Bernardin if he had lashed out in anger, condemning Cook and the media, perhaps threatening to countersue? And wouldn’t we have praised him if he had quietly said, “Well, I am going to let this go and move on”? But he did neither of these things; instead, he chose to forgive. He visited Steven Cook in his home, embraced him, celebrated Mass with him, gave him a gift of the Bible, anointed him, and prayed with him. Bernardin bore absolutely no responsibility for the severed relationship between himself and Cook; it was brought about exclusively through the efforts of his accuser. In strict justice, therefore, he was obliged to do nothing to repair it. But, as the Scripture says, “mercy mocks justice.” Bearing his accuser’s burden, the cardinal made the overture that the young man was unable to make — and in doing that, he forgave.

Why do I relate this radical practice to the second path of holiness, of knowing that you are a sinner? To walk this second path is to know that we are sinners and that we, accordingly, stand in constant need of forgiveness. What makes our forgiveness of others necessary is their sin; but what makes it possible is our deep gratitude for having been first forgiven ourselves. This becomes clear in the Gospel story of the. penitent prostitute in the house of Simon the Pharisee. To the shock of the gathered company, a woman of ill-repute approaches the rabbi from Nazareth, weeping onto his feet and anointing them with oil. Furious at the woman and disappointed in the altogether too permissive rabbi, Simon reacts violently: “If this man were a prophet, he would have know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him — that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). But Jesus gently corrects his host: “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. . . . Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love” (Luke 7:44—47). Simon is so spiritually cramped, so unable to love, because he has not yet felt the power of being forgiven; the woman overflows with love because she has felt to the bottom of her soul that her many sins have been wiped away. As Paul Tillich pointed out in his sermon on this passage, it is not that she loves and is therefore forgiven; rather, it is that she is forgiven and therefore loves.

In accordance with the governing intuition of path two, when we know that we are forgiven sinners, we become agents of divine forgiveness in the world, grateful bearers of others’ burdens, bold speakers of the hard truth.
The Strangest Way – Fr. Robert Barron

The Practice Of Forgiveness
The difficulty of the practice of forgiveness should not be underestimated. We may think we are forgiving, when all we are doing is denying that we have hurt or been hurt by sin. We may think we are forgiving when we have only grown weary of the fear and danger generated by hurt, and have accommodated ourselves to the presence of sin in ourselves or others. We may think we are forgiving when we are only acquiescing in sin against ourselves or against others. We learn the true nature of forgiveness from the way in which God forgives us. Because God knows us completely, God is also able to see that we are not totally identified with our sinful behavior, even if we think of ourselves as defined by sin. God is able to see and summon a self that we perhaps are not able to see. God calls into being that which is as yet only potential within us, namely a self that is not a sinner. In this sense, God forgives us rather than the sin. The sinful self is allowed to die. The self that can live to righteousness is raised by God. When we are able to trust that God so forgives us, we are able then to “turn” or “convert” to the self that God sees and calls into being, and can ourselves activate the self that lives again to righteousness.

We can learn to forgive each other from the way in which God forgives us. We can cultivate the habit of seeing in other s a self that is not defined by their sin. We can seek that self and call it into being, encouraging the growth of that larger self that is capable of living in communion. And as we learn this discipline of genuine forgiveness, we also grow larger – both because we are forgiven in turn and because we increasingly see our neighbors as God perceives them.

But let us also always be aware that we are not God, and cannot forgive as God forgives. We do not see the other truly and completely. There are hurts that we are not able, either individually or communally, to get around or grow past – to forgive or accept forgiveness for. And it is precisely in this humble condition of inadequacy and failure and even sin that we most truly implore the merciful God to forgive us, so that we might someday approach forgiving others as, we trust, God now already forgives them.

The Gift Of Forgiveness
In answer to those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But he has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does….That forgiveness can be vouchsafed only to the one who want it, or at least is willing to accept it, is perfectly obvious to everyone. If someone who were to be forgiven who does not want forgiveness, that would mean declaring him literally incapable of assuming responsibility of himself. …If we realize that perfectly consummated human guilt finally means a decision against God, and ultimately against Him alone, then it will suddenly dawn on us that man’s sin – despite his contrition and confession of guilt – can really only be extinguished by one act, by one act alone: the gift of forgiveness freely bestowed on us by God himself.
The Concept of Sin – Josef Pieper

Josef Pieper (1904-1997) was a German Catholic philosopher, at the forefront of the Neo-Thomistic wave in twentieth century Catholic philosophy. Among his most notable works are The Four Cardinal Virtues, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, The Philosophical Act, and Guide to Thomas Aquinas

Forgive Us Our Trespasses
The fifth petition of the Our Father presupposes a world in which there is trespass – trespass of men in relation to other men, trespass in relation to God. Every instance of trespass among men involves some kind of injury to truth and to love and thus opposed to God, who is truth and love…Guilt is a reality, an objective force; it has caused destruction that must be repaired. For this reason, forgiveness must be more than a matter of ignoring, of merely trying to forget. Guilt must be worked through, handled , and thus overcome. Forgiveness exacts a price – first of all from the person who forgives. He must overcome within himself the evil done to him; he must, as it were, burn it interiorly and in so doing renew himself. As a result, he also involves the other, the trespasser, in this process of transformation, of inner purification, and both parties, suffering all the way through and overcoming evil are made new.

The idea that God allowed the forgiveness of guilt, the healing of man from within, to cost him the death of his Son has come to seem quite alien to us today. That the Lord “has borne our diseases and taken upon himself sorrows,” that “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities,” and that “with his wounds we are healed”[Isaiah 53:4-6] no longer seems possible to us today. Militating against this on one side, is the trivialization of evil in which we take refuge, despite the fact that at the very same time we that the horrors of human history, especially of the most recent human history, as an irrefutable pretext for denying the existence of a good God and slandering his creature man. But the understanding of the great mystery of expiation is also blocked by our individual image of man. We can no longer grasp substitution because we think that every man is ensconced in himself alone. The fact that all individual beings are deeply interwoven and that all are encompassed in turn by the being of the one, the Incarnate Son, is something we are no longer capable of seeing….Cardinal John Henry Newman once said that while God could create the whole world out of nothing with just one word, he could overcome men’s guilt and suffering only by bringing himself into play, by becoming in his Son a sufferer who carried this burden and overcame it through his self-surrender. The overcoming of guilt has a price: We must put our heart – or, better, our whole existence – on the line. And even this act is insufficient; it can become effective only through communion with the One who bore the burdens of us all.

The petition for forgiveness is more than a moral exhortation – though it is that as well, and as such it challenges us anew every day. But as its deepest core, it is – like the other petitions – a Christological prayer. It reminds us of he who allowed forgiveness to cost him descent into the hardship of human existence and death on the Cross. It calls us first and foremost to thankfulness for that, and then, with him, to work through and suffer through evil by means of love, And while we must acknowledge day by day how little our capacities suffice for that task, and how often we ourselves keep falling into guilt, this petition gives us the great consolation that our prayer is held safe within the  power of his love – with which , though which and in which it can still become a power of healing.
Jesus of Nazareth – Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

The True Gravity Of Sin, The Free Grace Of Forgiveness
Now here is the point I wish to make, because this is the thought that came to me as I was putting all this before the Lord. Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing. If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgression then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional beside the exquisite primary fact of existence. Of course the Lord would wipe them away, just as I wipe dirt from your face, or tears. After all, why should the Lord bother much over these smirches that are no part of His Creation.

Well, there are a good many reasons why He should. We human beings do real harm. History could make a stone weep. I am aware that significant confusion enters my thinking at this point. I’m tired — that may be some part of the problem. Though I recall even in my prime foundering whenever I see the true gravity of sin over against the free grace of forgiveness. If young Boughton is my son, then by the same reasoning that child of his was also my daughter, and it was just terrible what happened to her, and that’s a fact. As I am a Christian man, I could never say otherwise.
Gilead – Marilynne Robinson

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime,
Therefore, we are saved by hope.
Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
Therefore, we are saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone.
Therefore, we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite a virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own;
Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.
Reinhold Niebuhr

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One comment

  1. Great post, I didn’t read all of it but I liked the part about the Cardinal and his forgiveness.

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