Forgiving with Perfect Charity

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by Mike Goggin

The Twitterverse reveals to us every imaginable thought under the sun. Here’s one that caught my eye just yesterday, from Brazilian lyricist and novelist Paulo Coelho. “Be strong enough to forgive without hearing an apology.” I would like to make that message the crux of my Easter reflection to the IVC community.

The Passion narratives of Palm Sunday and Good Friday point us in the direction of affirming this aphorism as followers of the Christ. Confronted with unspeakable cruelty that would soon sap him of his last human breath, Jesus addresses his Abba in these words. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) 

Jesus would never hear an apology from his tormentors. His prayer to his Father here is perfect charity. The clear inference is that Christians should likewise be generous in forgiving, even if the words “I’m sorry” are never uttered in our direction.

We find this teaching troubling. We expect those who wrong us to apologize for their actions. Sometimes we will even critique such apologies, looking for the phrase “I’m sorry if anyone took offense to what I said or did” as a telltale sign of insincerity. We want to hear the words, but our own forgiveness is sometimes not so freely offered.

Catholics in the United States and in some other countries around the world approach this Easter struggling anew with the scourge of clergy sexual abuse and the clericalism that seemed to perpetuate it. Specifically, we look at the failures of our bishops in protecting their abusive clergy more readily than our vulnerable children. We want apologies from these leaders and we posit theories on why those words are so slow in coming. I recently wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post about this very subject, “Why don’t Catholic leaders who screw up just say they’re sorry?”

Families everywhere could benefit from the same kind of freely offered forgiveness as Jesus uttered on the cross. Some of you might have stories of long-standing family feuds that continue from year to year, holiday gathering to holiday gathering, because someone involved (or everyone involved) was so stubborn about not offering an apology. Some of the men and women we encounter at our IVC worksites are alienated and isolated from family members for this very reason. How liberating it would be for them (and us) if we followed the credo advanced in a random Lenten Sunday tweet from the author of The Alchemist. “Be strong enough to forgive without hearing an apology.”

What kind of reaction was generated by Coelho’s tweet? I particularly like this reply from a Canadian gentleman named Dr. John Stackhouse. “Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself, not just the other. It means naming what was wrong as wrong (otherwise, no forgiveness needed!) and then saying you refuse to be bound to it and to carry it around anymore. Forgiveness is freedom.”

This year may that freedom be the essence of our resurrection hope. Happy Easter to all! He is risen. Alleluia!  

Mike Goggin is IVC Washington, DC/Metro Maryland regional director. 

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