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Sunday, February 27, 2011

On Forgiveness

A few days ago, a reader queried,

I want to ask you about forgiveness. It's such a basic and integral part of our Faith and yet many people, like me, aren't entirely sure what it means. What are the steps for forgiveness? . To recieve forgiveness from the Almighty I must Repent, ask forgiveness and make penance. Are we to ask this same process for those seeking OUR forgiveness? It often seems by the way that people talk about forgiveness that it should be a simple thing...I am not always so sure.

One more thing. When does Forgiveness become Enabling?

Thanks for your questions, Jose!

You're not the first to ask, and you won't be the last. Let's break it down and get to the heart of the matter.

1. What IS forgiveness?

That's a great question! Perhaps, through common knowledge of both God and ourselves, we can come to a definition that will make the term more clear.

We know that we are fallen creatures and as such, we don't just offend God, but we frequently offend each other, and sometimes we do so on purpose.

How many of you are familiar with the cry of surrender from childhood games, "OK! I give!"

Some would say "UNCLE!" which is similar but the a heartfelt "I GIVE!" does a lot more both for we as the one who succumbs, and we who are victors. "I GIVE!" is a cry of humility, of surrender, and is a universal appeal for mercy. It is also an expression of implicit offering: "Whatever it is you want...I GIVE!" and often physically expressed by open arms and hands, showing that there are no hidden weapons, be they sticks, stones, M-180's or cream pies.

Forgiveness, then, belongs to the one who reigns, the one who is in control.. Forgiveness anticipates the surrender of the "enemy" and makes him a friend through the divine virtue of charity which wills the good of the other.

We as humans "forgive" when we recognize that we are all fallen, we all fall short, and we all merit Hell. When we are faced with an interlocutor, in knowing our own final end, it is much easier to gaze upon the faults of another and even if they don't ask, to surrender ourselves to their own faults in recognition that they have likely accepted our own as a foregone conclusion of our basic humanity. Even if they have not, we know that our own faults give us greater cause to accept the offenses of another.

John Paul II wrote extensively about the mercy of God, and in his Encyclical on that topic, Dives in miseriacordia, he discussed how mercy begets mercy. When we have experienced mercy, we learn also to extend it to others.

This is not a true definition but perhaps just an illustration.

2. How does one forgive? What are the steps?

Forgiveness is not so much a matter of "steps" as a matter of interior disposition.

In our fallen nature, we tend to turn even the simplest of things into a "process" and think that if we put that "process" in place, everything will go well. The first thing to realize is that we are human, not machines.

Forgiveness has, at it's core, relationship. In order for us to be offended, we must have some kind of relationship with the one who offended us. Certainly there are degrees of relationship, but for the most part, if we're hitting the confessional on Saturday afternoon to speak about forgiveness or the lack thereof, it's because of a real person we know and have injured in some way...or perhaps we have been injured by them. When we go before Our Lord with contrition

When it comes down to it, there are no "steps" to forgiveness.There's nothing complicated about forgiveness unless we make it so. It's what we choose to do...or do not.

Sometimes people are deeply, deeply wounded by the sins of another; so much so that they may believe they can never forgive the person who hurt them. An example of this might be a family whose daughter was abducted and murdered, or those families who lost loved ones in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

In cases where the offense is so great, that is where we need to lean on Christ and pray for HIM to forgive those who have hurt us. Perhaps when we begin that prayer, we may not truly desire it, but the willingness to hand it to Him can transform our own souls and heal our own wounds until one day, perhaps that forgiveness will become our own as well. We have to forgive others through Our Lord, who can bear all things on our behalf and on behalf of the offender.

3. The Sacrament of Confession follows a process of Repentance, Confession, and Penance. 

Yes, it does. If we are asking God for forgiveness, we'd better be sorry for what we have done. If we aren't...the Confession is invalid, no matter what the Priest says. God knows our hearts and souls and we can't fudge Him.

So, yes, we must be truly sorry and intend to do better. We must confess our sins, and then we must "make satisfaction" which is the penance given by the Priest. Have you ever noticed that no matter what horrible things you have done, the prayers you are told to offer don't even TOUCH the offense in most cases?

There is a reason for that: it is because we can NEVER make satisfaction for our sins. Only the Son of God can do that, but we are called to participate in that offering. I can give this concrete example:

One day after an hour of my regularly scheduled prayer in the Perpetual Adoration chapel I went to Confession, and I had things to do afterward, but decided to go to Confession anyway in a brief window open to me. I confessed sins relating to impatience, but had no mortal sins. Overall, it was a pretty benign Confession!

The Priest gave me the penance of an entire Rosary, which was HUGE for this particular Priest who was known for his...uh..benevolence.(very Holy priest, very lenient penances).

I accepted my penance and returned to my place, actually grumbling about it! I'd been there an hour, I'd already prayed a Rosary and I hadn't had anything serious to confess! I had to get this over with, and quickly as I had to GO!

And that's when it hit me:  uh...yeah. Impatience.  In my own immediate sin of impatience after confessing impatience, I couldn't even complete my assigned penance without complaint! That lesson hit me right where it counted:  heart and soul.

Do you see?

4. Does what God asks us to do apply also to those who offend US?

Yes, He does, although not necessarily in the same way.

This question is best answered by the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the section on Christian Prayer on the topic of the Lord's Prayer, the "Our Father".

First, we are called throughout scripture to be holy and perfect as our Father in Heaven is holy and perfect. It is made clear that a facet of His perfection is His forgiveness and mercy for sinners; that teaching is a living reality. Jesus stated very clearly that we must pray for those who persecute us, to love our enemies, and to "turn the other cheek." If our Father in heaven forgives us, who are we to refuse to do the same?

If we are to be like Him, we must be willing to suffer much and still stretch our own arms out to our sides, vulnerable to attack and give ourselves up in love to anything that does not require us to commit mortal sin.

The teachings on Our Lord's Prayer as it applies to forgiveness is found in CCC paragraphs 2838 -2845. Please note that the teaching does not begin or end there, but is encompassed in all of Catholic teaching and throughout the life of Christ as expressed in the scriptures.

In short, must we forgive others as Christ forgives us:  YES! To do differently is to deny Him entirely.

5. What keeps forgiveness from being enabling?

Keep this in mind:  we are called to holy obedience and growth in relationship with Christ to forgive...not to forget. Never does He say we must forget.

Jesus does not call us to be doormats without a cause.

To understand this, we have to first understand the true definition of charity (divine love):  True Charity wills the good of another. Not just the temporal good, but the ETERNAL good, for that is what we are here on earth to obtain: Eternal beatitude with God.

We have to ask ourselves, in every moment, "What is the most loving thing?"

It is not enabling to forgive. It is enabling to turn a blind eye, to refuse to see what is there and to say nothing to someone we know and love and CAN speak to. It is enabling to recognize a problem in a person who is a mere acquaintance and refuse to bring it to the attention of those who do know that person in hopes they will intervene if necessary.

It is enabling to forgive and not maintain boundaries, for real forgiveness holds the sinner accountable for their actions.

That is the difference:  Forgiveness exists for the sake of Holy Conversion of heart and soul. It is to bring us closer to God, to help us to recognize who we are in His sight, and to recognize His supreme authority and ability to heal us of even the most dire offenses. If Our Lord can forgive us our offenses, it stands to reason that we, too must extend that same kind of mercy towards those who offend us as well.

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Jose, I hope this helped, at least a little. If you're a reader, I do highly recommend that you read Dives in Miseriacordia (linked above) as well as the passages in the CCC that of course are far more succinct and to the point than I will ever be!

If something I said here doesn't make sense, please feel free to ask - I never can claim to be free from error! ;-)

1 comment:

Jose said...

Thank you so much for taking my questions so seriously! You clearly put a lot of thought into this answer. And it was quite helpful. Gracias!

Jose Colon