Forgiving offences is a huge work of mercy that has no boundaries. It is not limited to a category but, instead, covers and affects the hearts of all of us. Day by day. This is because to live forgiveness is in reality decisive and discriminating when it comes to recognising a Christian community, and as a consequence a Christian family as well. In order to explore this subject I would like to draw, as well, upon an interesting lecture that was given by Msgr. Giancarlo Maria Bregantini, my very dear friend, at the ‘Sermons of Spoleto’. It is important to observe immediately that the word ‘forgiveness’ is sovereign in the Gospel and in the lives of faith of those who experience the infinite love of God. It is a word that flows around the world. In a frequently silent way – but in a way that is always effective. Where there is forgiveness, there is a flower that blooms. There is good that defeats evil. When forgiveness flowers, indeed, in the darkest of nights, it burns like a torch of hope which is placed at the rudder of history in order to steer the ship of one’s own life beyond the bitter and stormy waters of offence to the port of peace. And in forgiveness there is a concern, that is to say a sort of ‘care’, for the other which is of a disarming gratuitousness that appeals not to the challenge of pride but to the challenge of weakness. Forgiving is thus at the summit of things for a believer. It is that human action which more than any other corresponds to divine action.
Christian forgiveness, indeed, has its roots in the immense and limitless love of God the Father. His project of love, His heart, is well highlighted in the famous preface to the second Eucharistic Prayer of Reconciliation which reads as follows: ‘It is truly right and just that we should give you thanks and praise, O God, almighty Father, for all you do in this world, through our Lord Jesus Christ. For though the human race is divided by dissension and discord, yet we know that by testing us you change our hearts to prepare them for reconciliation. Even more, by your Spirit you move human hearts that enemies may speak to each other again, adversaries may join hands, and peoples seek to meet together. By the working of your power it comes about, O Lord, that hatred is overcome by love, revenge gives way to forgiveness, and discord is changed to mutual respect’. If we see things aright, the whole of the Bible is nothing else but a continuous and progressive slow revelation of the heart of God, of His love as a Father. For example, even after the sin of idolatry of the chosen people with their worship of the golden calf (Exodus chapter 32), God had Moses re-write on new tablets His wish to forgive and to love His people: ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin’ (Exodus 34:5-7). Thus it is that the Psalmist can sing: ‘Lord, thou was favourable to thy land…Thou didst forgive the iniquity of thy people; thou didst pardon all their sin’ (Ps 85:2-3). It only remains to us to praise the Lord for His immense mercy: ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases’ (Ps 103:2-3).
Jesus in the fullness of time, coming amongst us, immediately spoke to us about forgiveness and mercy, inviting us to imitate the tender and merciful heart of the Father: ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven’ (Mt 5:44). ‘You have heard that it was said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also’ (Mt 5:38-39). ‘You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt 5:48). In addition, Jesus also revealed to us that the Father rejects our prayers and even the Eucharist if we do not first forgive those who have offended us: ‘So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother and then come and offer your gift’ (Mt 5:23-24). Jesus’s invitation to forgive reaches its summit on the cross where amongst his seven wonderful Words he places the most incisive one: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ (Lk 23:34). It was for this reason that he taught us the prayer ‘Our Father’ where we ask him to forgive our trespasses (sins) as we are prepared to forgive them that trespass against us (cf. Mt 6:9-13).
The wish to forgive can relate to offences, injuries, affronts, insults, outrages, torts, damage, blows, being bothered, provocations and even killings. During the ‘Years of Lead’, for example, Christian forgiveness in Italy demonstrated all of its dignity through a list of luminous witnesses that included Bachelet, Mazzotti, Mattarella, Tobagi and very many others. To forgive, in addition, contributes to the very wellbeing of a person. Indeed, those who nurture rancour or vengeance do not sleep easily in their beds and if they are also struck by illness this blocks or slows down their recovery. St. Giuseppe Moscati, a famous scientist who had a deep knowledge of the interferences that exist between the body and the spirit, said one day to a patient that if he did not reconcile himself with his wife it would be difficult for him to recover from his serious heart trouble. Being reconciled with God, forgiving offences, and recognising one’s own sins is, in addition, a source of relief and joy. Manzoni, as a believer, attempted to describe the intense happiness experienced by a nameless man after confessing his sins amidst tears to a Cardinal: ‘God is truly great! God is truly good! My iniquities are in front of me, I feel repugnance for myself; and yet I feel a sense of relief, a joy; yes, a joy such as I have never experienced before in the whole of my horrible life’ (The Betrothed, chapter XXIII). On the other hand, it is terrible to read what St. Francis da Paola wrote in his letters about those who not want to forgive and who nurture vengeance and rancour: ‘memory of a wickedness that has been endured is in fact injury, full of madness, the keeping of sin, hatred for justice, a rusty arrow, poison of the soul, a wasting of virtue, a woodworm of the mind, confusion in prayer, a laceration of prayers made to God, the abandonment of charity, a nail fixed in our souls, a sin that never goes away, and daily death’. Only prayer can become the source from which to draw the courage to forgive and the will to forgive. Without prayer, without a heart directed to the cross of Jesus, it is not possible to think of gestures of reconciliation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: ‘Either a Christian community lives by prayer or it perishes! I cannot judge or hate a brother for whom I pray, however much difficulty I might have in accepting his way of being or acting! His face, which perhaps is extraneous to me or which is unbearable to me, in prayer is transformed into the face of the brother for whom Christ died, into the face of a forgiven sinner’. Those who in their hearts are capable of forgiving – they indeed can teach forgiveness to others. Think of a mother who has forgiven in her heart – albeit with thousands of tears – the person who killed her child. Nobody more than that mother will know how to point to this difficult but possible pathway of reconciliation and peace.
In order to achieve this goal, it can often be useful to or even necessary to have the real cooperation of the whole of the Christian community through the instrument of fraternal correction. Jesus was very clear on this point: ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or more witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses even to listen to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’ (Mt 18:15-17).
In addition, at a social and cultural level, forgiveness soon leads the community, and we may also hope society as a whole, to a lifestyle based upon non-violence. This is a practice that is decisive for humanity. How can we not remember a bitter observation made by Don Milani: ‘while Hitler was being lauded in Europe, in India millions of poor people followed Gandhi! They were contemporaries. But what a difference there was between them!’ India teaches us because it learnt from a man who read the Gospel, and especially forgiveness, with admiration!
Lastly, there is a new dimension of forgiveness on the pathway of reconciliation. It is stewarding the creation, which was suggested by Pope Francis in his wonderful but scourging encyclical Laudato Si’. This is a new, unexpected and wonderful application of forgiveness. Indeed, often we have offended, violated, dirtied and polluted this creation! Now it is up to us to ‘heal the wounds we have created’; to forgive – and to be forgiven for – the offences to the earth, to nature. That is to say to the Work of God.
Father Rosario Messina