Forgiveness 401: An Advanced Course
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
February 25, 2019

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C) on February 24, 2019, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: 1 Samuel 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23; Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 15:45-49; and Luke 6:27-38.

I don’t think a lot of us are very familiar with the First Book of Samuel, so let’s explain the context of today’s first reading. Saul was anointed as the first king of Israel, but then he turned out to be a lousy leader. Saul eventually feels so threatened by David that he leads an expedition to kill David. Our passage today talks about a moment in that expedition when the tables are turned, and David has the opportunity to kill Saul.

It ties in beautifully with our passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, stop judging, stop condemning, and learn to forgive. It’s a tall order. As we face the challenges of Christian discipleship, let us remind ourselves that God is always ready to shower us with grace and mercy.

Most of us say that we’re enthusiastically in favor of forgiving those who have hurt us, but frankly, most of us don’t want to do the work to make forgiveness a reality. We can open up any issue of Reader’s Digest or any volume of Chicken Soup For the Soul and find lots of “feel good” stories about people forgiving one another. But those warm fuzzies mask the truth: forgiveness is hard work. It almost always starts at a place of anger. We want to believe that the first step in forgiveness is someone else doing something. We’re in the right; it’s the other person who has wronged us. 

Now, in light of all the news these days about grudges, divisions, and cover-ups, we must acknowledge that forgiveness is not the same thing as full reconciliation.  It is not always appropriate to restore the relationship to a previous state as if the wrong had never happened. The example we most often talk about is domestic abuse. Abusers pressure their victims to repeatedly forgive their bad behavior, allowing the cycle to perpetuate. That is not what Jesus is talking about in turning the other cheek, or giving our tunic as well as our cloak.

Before I am allowed to offer the Church’s absolution for someone’s sins, there are three things that have to happen: (1) the person must admit what they’ve done, (2) the person must say they’re sorry, and (3) the person must sincerely want to change. As a priest, I often advise people that they can’t achieve full reconciliation until the other person admits what they’ve done, said they’re sorry, and truly demonstrated that they have changed. And in the cases of truly toxic relationships, I urge people to get to safety, because the person has repeatedly shown that they do not have the ability to change.

As someone who entered the seminary in 2005, I’ve also had a front seat in witnessing the Church’s response to its own abuse crisis. Granted, a shockingly high number of people have done terrible things, and they must face consequences for their actions. However, the fact of the matter is, most of us are naïve. When someone we actually know and love turns out to be an abuser, we really want to believe that they can still change. Isn’t that what Jesus challenges us to do? To give people a second chance? To love others as our heavenly Father loves us? To forgive without counting the cost?

Such a mindset, however, is to confuse forgiveness – an act we can accomplish by ourselves – with reconciliation – an act that takes both parties to accomplish. In 2002 in the Catholic Church in the United States, we officially concluded that the risks were too great in allowing former abusers to be placed in positions where they could possibly strike again. This weekend in Rome, it’s clear that some bishops in other parts of the world are still too naïve on this issue. In societies with taboos around talking about sexuality, limited investigative journalism, and corrupt judicial systems, the bishops are understandably struggling to accept that abusers must be permanently removed from ministry. They, like us, want to believe that abusers will change once their sins have been brought to light. And maybe some of them do change, but the possibility of other minors getting hurt is simply too big a risk to take.

Even in the cases when irreparable damage has been done to us, forgiveness is possible, even when reconciliation is out of reach. Jesus is not calling us to continually place ourselves in danger. Nor is he inviting us to allow people unfettered access to commit atrocities. So, what does forgiveness look like in a case like this?

25 years ago, Immaculée Ilibagiza miraculously survived the genocide of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus by hiding in a secret room for 100 days, even as people she knew were within earshot, screaming for her death.  Long after the genocide, and long after Immaculée believed that she had forgiven the Hutu people, she suddenly realized that all her remaining neighbors were complicit in the deaths of her father, mother, and two brothers. She writes in her autobiography:

My heart hungered for revenge, and I raged inside myself.  Those bloody animals!  They are animals, animals, animals!…

I rolled out of bed and got down on my knees.  ‘Forgive my evil thoughts, God,’ I prayed….  ‘Those who did these horrible things are still Your children….  Oh, God, help me to love them.’ 

A sudden rush of air flooded my lungs.  I heaved a heavy sigh of relief…. I was sad – deeply sad – but my sadness felt good….  I missed my family desperately, but the anger that had gripped me like a returning malignancy was gone.

How do people find the ability to forgive in such circumstances? How can they value mercy to their enemies over a desire for what our secular society calls “justice”? 

Immaculée eventually visited a prison to face Felicien, the man most responsible for the murders of her family. He was also the man she had heard screaming for her death while she was in hiding. She recalls the moment:

Felicien was sobbing…. I reached out, touched his hands lightly, and quietly said what I’d come to say. “I forgive you.”

My heart eased immediately, and I saw the tension release in Felicien’s shoulders before [the sheriff] pushed him out the door…. When [the sheriff] returned, he was furious.

“What was that all about, Immaculée? That was the man who murdered your family….[Y]ou forgave him! How could you do that? Why did you forgive him?”

I answered him with the truth: “Forgiveness is all I have to offer.”

Immaculée had been wronged by Felicien. Yet she found it necessary to be transformed, to be vulnerable, to offer her forgiveness to him unconditionally. She found a peace that didn’t require her to call for Felicien’s death. She didn’t even feel the need to spit in his face.

Hopefully, most of us will never face anything as horrific as the Rwandan genocide, but all of us will be wronged by others. Statistics tell us that at least one out of every four of us will suffer abuse of some kind at the hands of someone we know. We will all repeatedly face the challenge to let go of the desire for vengeance and retribution. 

So, what is required of us to be forgiving? So often, we try to get inside the mind of the person who has wronged us, trying to come up with an excuse for why they behaved as they did. But that’s not the solution that David, Jesus, and Immaculée offer to us. And clearly, we’re not supposed to be naïve, pretending that we’ve never been hurt. How do we become ambassadors of God’s love in a compicated world of unintended consequences? We need to be prudent, of course, but we also need to continue to be loving, considerate, and tender-hearted people. 

I “crowd sourced” this homily on social media in order to improve the content and the tone. One friend suggested that forgiveness is one of those “self-care” practices that feels selfish to us, but actually makes us better contributors to building the kingdom of God, like exercise, prayer, eating well, and getting enough sleep. Or as Jesus said: as we give, so will gifts be given to us.