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Pastoral letter for Lent 2012

Feb 22, 2012, 2:08 PM


1.         Forgiveness is not something that comes easily to any of us. My feelings have been hurt. My pride has also been hurt. And this is even more difficult to live with. Very often I will want to prove that I was in the right. I will also want my brother to accept the wrongdoing for which he was responsible. Then, and only then, I might consider the possibility of forgiving him! (A sense of humour can help - if this is possible, as the innocent victim once said: ‘I thought I made a mistake once, but I was wrong’!).

‘To err is human, to forgive is divine’. To be able to forgive is a gift from God. To be able to forgive my brother is to set him free. But even more important it should include setting myself free from the miserable prison of resentment – or keeping malice. Keeping malice is like drinking poison and hoping that my brother would die – or just disappear out of my life. It is a cancer of the spirit, and like a cancer of the body it grows and festers until it destroys. And then my own life becomes a living death, until such time as I am able to turn myself over into the hands of the divine physician before it is too late. Only then can I experience that inner peace and freedom that come from opening the door of my heart to those healing words once spoken from the Cross: ‘Father, forgive them….’.


2.         Jesus taught us just one simple prayer and it includes the following petition: ‘And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’.

In other words, we are obliged to respect the conditions of our own need for forgiveness. This injunction seems to be non-negotiable! ‘Forgive and you will be forgiven’. Jesus goes to great lengths to insist on this aspect of forgiveness. He spoke about a servant who owed a lot of money to his master but was unable to repay him. He went to his master and explained his predicament and begged him to give him time to repay. In fact, his master went a step further and forgave him the whole debt with no conditions attached.

However, on his way home, the forgiven servant met a fellow servant who owed him just a small amount of money. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded payment at once. The fellow servant pleaded with him to allow some time but was refused. He was then thrown into jail until the debt was paid. When the master of the house heard about this he was furious and ordered that the servant he forgave be thrown into prison along with his family until all debts were paid (cf. Matt. 18, 23-35). The story speaks for itself. Yet, Jesus leaves us with no doubt by clearly stating the message: ‘And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart’. These words are frightening…..

3.         Some years ago, a young girl died in her father’s arms, after a bomb went off at a public ceremony in Northern Ireland. After the tragic funeral, the father publicly and wholeheartedly forgave the evildoers of this crime and pleaded that there be no revenge. His ability and his willingness to forgive touched the whole nation and also got worldwide publicity. As a Protestant from the North of Ireland, with no political experience, he was offered and accepted a seat in the Senate of the Irish Republic. It was a moment in the history of the ‘troubles’ in that part of the world when the whole nation desperately needed such a magnanimous gesture of Christian witness. It was so significant that his declaration of total forgiveness (and no revenge) had such an impact on everyone – whatever their racial, political or religious affiliation. What he did was perceived as something impossible to a human being on his own. It was obvious that this man was a ‘man of God’. This single act of Christian witness became an important turning point in the apparent unending spiral of violence and death that had plagued the life of the people in this part of Ireland for almost thirty years. Eventually, it contributed to the ‘Good Friday’ agreement in 1997 which marked the beginning of the end of so much violence. ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’.

4.         Jesus’ own disciples had to struggle and wrestle with this completely new teaching on forgiveness. Let us remember how they had been brought up to demand ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ according to the Jewish tradition at that time. One day, Peter ventured to ask Jesus - how often do I have to forgive my brother who has offended me. He suggested the figure ‘seven times’ expecting that Jesus would be very impressed by such a generous offer. So, imagine his amazement when Jesus replied: No, not seven times; but seventy times seven! He was really saying that there are no limits or boundaries when it comes to forgiving each other.

5.         I grew up at a time when we believed that Confession was the only sure way of obtaining God’s forgiveness for our sins. We went to Confession every Saturday so that we would be ‘worthy’ enough to receive Holy Communion on Sunday. It never occurred to me that this kind of thinking put everybody else except Catholics outside the boundaries of God’s forgiveness! And I have no memory of ever being unduly concerned about this matter. The story of redemption is a story of God’s forgiveness for all peoples. Jesus’ story about the Prodigal Son returning to the forgiving embrace of his father is a classic in this respect. In the same way, God loves and forgives each one of us first so that we, in turn, will be able to love and forgive one another. And so when I decide to go to Confession, I have already repented and chosen to change some wrongdoing in my life. It also includes the grace or the help I need to put this into practice (‘…and I firmly resolve with the help of your grace never more to offend….’). Years ago, I went to Confession to be forgiven something that happened in the past. Now I go to Confession having made a decision to change my life in the future – hopefully. God has just forgiven me. Now I owe it to him to forgive my brother or sister. The sacrament is more like the icing on the cake; whereas, the firm resolution to forgive my neighbor is the core ingredient of the cake.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we begin our Lenten journey towards Easter let us pray: ‘Lord, give me a forgiving heart’, as we recall those words of Jesus from the Cross: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’.

+ Robert P. Ellison C.S.Sp., Bishop of Banjul