Saturday, April 28, 2007

Freedom to forgive

Here are two recent posts related to forgiveness:

“Midnight ponderer”: I understand there is a great healing process for the person who can forgive another. I admire everyone that can forgive another person's indescretions. I need help with all of this 'forgiving' though. Can it be a finite thing like : one time per person? For example, I do not know how to reply to an extended family member's criticism of this aspect of our religion. She says "What use are all of your church rules, you have many hypocrits because people can do anything they want, then God and christians forgive them and they get to go to heaven anyway". I sure doesn't sound fair when she puts it like that. Can you help me counter with the appropriate answer?

"Anon": “Are there some basic steps for forgiveness? I honestly do not think I know how to actively forgive someone. There is one particular person who has done some things that really hurt me. In my head, I understand that she must be hurting herself in order to unleash that kind of venom, but, even with that understanding, my heart still feels bruised. I pray for her at Mass and adoration, but when I find myself thinking about her, I feel sick to my stomach. Just yesterday she called my home, and when I saw her number on the caller ID, I literally felt ill. How do I get my heart and body to cooperate in forgiveness?”

To “Midnight ponderer”, there is a story which involves the late, great Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Archbishop Sheen was an extraordinary preacher who was very popular in the 50s, 60s, and 70s – he even had a show on NBC. One time he was preaching to a packed house at St. Matthew’s Cathedral here in Washington when a man came into the Church off the street. He was yelling all kinds of things when Sheen finally paused to hear him. The man said, “you Catholics are all a bunch of hypocrites!” Sheen didn’t miss a beat, responding immediately: “yes, and we have room for one more”. You can use that as an appropriate answer to your family member!

In a sense, we are all hypocrites. None of us is perfect. Christ preached a Gospel of forgiveness. We continue to study, follow, and teach this Gospel. Just because we don’t live it perfectly, does that mean that we abandon it? Of course not. In fact, it’s exactly because we’re not perfect that we need Christ and his Gospel. But, the focus is not on us.

The focus of Christianity is Jesus Christ. The point is that He offers forgiveness - despite all of our imperfections, selfishness, stubbornness, etc. – whenever we turn back to Him. It is an infinite amount of forgiveness. This is an unbelievable mystery!! It might be a little too unbelievable for some people, so they mock it instead of pursuing it. God’s forgiveness has no end, so we are all called to have abundant forgiveness as well. Jesus says to forgive, not seven times (which implies a limited, finite amount), but seventy times seven times (which implies abundant forgiveness).

To Anon, the best way I have learned to forgive is to ask for forgiveness. Regular Confession is so key to living the Gospel of forgiveness, if you ask me. If I am constantly seeing how often I sin against God and neighbor, and how often I am forgiven by God and neighbor, then I will be much more prone to forgive. We pray each time in the Our Father, “forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us”. That reminds us that we will be forgiven if we have forgiven others; also, it means that we will not be forgiven if we haven’t forgiven others.

If we make regular acts of the will – doing a daily examination of conscience, going to Confession regularly, etc. – that lead to our own forgiveness, then we will make regular acts of the will that will lead to forgiving others. In other words, our wills lead us to forgiveness, and our hearts and bodies follow our wills.

Finally, forgiveness is all about conversion of heart. This is what Mp’s family member or anyone who takes the cynical view of Christian forgiveness misses. The process of forgiveness is one of the most beautiful things to witness or experience in the world. In it, a person turns away from self (sin) and turns toward God and others…toward love. Ultimately, forgiveness leads to true healing of mind, body, soul, and strength as well as freedom. The person who forgives others freely – while not condoning sinful behavior – is living true freedom; the person who ignores or avoids others who have hurt him or her is not living in freedom. The former is living the virtue of humility; the latter is living the vice of pride. If we are living humility, then we are living in freedom…the freedom to forgive as God forgives.

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