It is a privilege to reflect with you on the Year of Mercy in these days in which we approach the birth of the Prince of Peace, our Savior who revealed to us the Father, the "God, who is rich in mercy" (Eph 2:4).
Have you seen the latest version of Cinderella? In the movie, just as Cinderella and her Prince begin to leave the wicked stepmother, Cinderella turns to face the cruel woman. “I forgive you,” Cinderella says clearly. Then, secure in her resolve to always practice kindness, arm-in-arm with her beloved Prince, Cinderella exits with a blissful flourish. Who would think that a glass slipper and a pretty dress would show us how to carry out a Spiritual Work of Mercy: to “forgive injuries.”
Forgiveness comes in all sizes
In this Jubilee Year of Mercy Pope Francis is appealing to each of us to practice mercy in the daily occurrences of our lives. When someone pulls into the parking space you have waited for, it takes self-control to refrain from laying on the car horn and expressing frustration in four letter words. Forgiveness comes in all sizes: parking lot wide; wiping up kitchen messes slim; taking-out-the-garbage-yourself tall…and so on. It fits all sizes! Daily life abounds with occasions to practice mercy.
The one time, “I forgive you,” for mistakes and weakness sounds different from the ongoing, sometimes life-long struggle to keep forgiving over and over again someone we live with or work with. I’m thinking of one woman I spoke with whose husband suffered with severe OCD and how much virtue it required for her to be patient with him when he lashed out at her for things as simple as how she closed a refrigerator door. I’m also recalling an interactive article on CNN entitled “The Loneliest Club” which features a video of parents whose children have been taken from them too soon through gun violence. Two of the questions the article wrestled with were: How does one show mercy in situations that are so painful as to seem to have no meaning at all? Is it even right to show mercy in these cases?
“Tell them you forgive”
Years ago when I was a member of the Board of Directors for the National Council for Catholic Evangelization, I often travelled to attend conventions. One year Sister Barbara and I travelled to the NCCE’s annual convention in Raleigh, North Carolina. As we opened the door to the lodging, our cell phone rang. “I need to speak to Sister Barbara.” It was one of her sisters. Seconds later I heard a loud moan and a cry, “Oh no, not John!” Early that morning her nephew had died of a gunshot wound. Shot at close range, the bullet ricocheted from his shoulder and traced a fatal path through his body. He died soon after.
Thanks to the kindness of the hotel personnel Sister Barbara caught a flight to Philadelphia the following morning. She joined her family as they mourned the loss of their twenty-five-year-old nephew, the oldest of four children. As we enter this Jubilee Year of Mercy, I want to share with you the testimony of Jane D., John’s mother.
My son was shot on June 5, 2001 while he waited on a customer at a convenience store. The young man who shot him didn’t even rob the store. He just returned to his car and reportedly bragged about what he had done. Today he serves a life sentence plus 24 years with no chance of parole.
The day after the murder, journalists tracked down where we lived and showed up at our home wanting a statement from the family. They asked me what I thought about the killer. At first I didn’t know what to say and regretted having allowed them into our home. What could a mother possibly say to answer that question? As I stood there in agony, I asked the Holy Spirit for the words to say. I heard a voice inside of me as clear as day. The words I heard were: “Tell them you forgive whoever did this to your son.”
I said quietly, “Really?”
The voice continued, “If Pope John Paul can forgive the man who shot him, then you can forgive whoever shot your son.”
So I turned to the news reporters and said, “I forgive whoever did this.”
“But you don’t even know who shot your son,” they responded. “How can you say that?”
I said, “That is true. But it doesn’t matter who shot him. If the Pope can forgive the man who shot him, who am I not to forgive the man who shot my son?” I had little else to say to satisfy them so I gave them a picture for the paper and showed them to the door.
The police found the young man who shot my son five days later. I knew that nothing could bring my son back. As time went on, I have realized that forgiving the killer was the best thing I could ever have done for myself. Forgiving a total stranger has helped me to heal and to be able to keep going. Of course, I continued to grieve and cry for several years, everyone has their own grieving time. With the Trinity, all things are possible.
Sometimes Christmas gets usurped by the warm fuzzies, even when we reflect on the reason for the season. In today’s world it helps me to remember that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity was born in Palestine to a people under Roman occupation. We don’t have to read between the lines of the Gospel texts to realize that Joseph, Mary and Jesus lived in difficult times and that the people there were often subjected to unjust situations. Jesus chose to live all of this, from the crib to the cross. He knows how painful and difficult is the agony of being sinned against. Jesus appreciates the intense struggle required to make Christian decisions in sometimes very complex and hurtful situations.
"The Family is a large gym for training in mutual forgiveness."
In his Catechesis on the Family in St. Peter's Square on November 4,2015, Pope Francis addressed the power of forgiveness in the heart of the family. He said: “Today I would like to stress this point: that the family is a large gym for training in self-giving and mutual forgiveness. …Every day we do wrong to one other. We have to take account of these mistakes that come from our frailty and our selfishness. But what is required of us now is to heal the wounds that we inflict on each other, immediately to mend the threads that break in family life. If we wait too long, everything becomes more difficult. And there’s a simple secret to healing the wounds and dismissing the charges. It’s this: do not let the day end without asking forgiveness, without making peace between husband and wife, between parents and children, brothers and sisters, between daughter in-law and mother-in-law.
“If we learn to apologize immediately and grant each other forgiveness, the wounds heal, the marriage is strengthened and the family becomes a more and more solid home that withstands the tremors of our mean behavior, big and small. And long discussions are needed for this, a caress is enough. One caress, and it’s all over and we start again. But do not finish the day at war. Got it?”
“Forgiveness in a sometimes ruthless society.”
“If we learn to live like this as a family, we’ll do so outside as well, wherever we are. It’s easy to be skeptical about this. Many—even among Christians—think it is an exaggeration. They say yes, they are beautiful words, but it is impossible to put them into practice. But thanks be to God it is not so. In fact, it precisely in receiving forgiveness from God that we, in turn, are able to forgive others. This is why Jesus makes us repeat these words every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer—that is, every day. And it is essential that, in a sometimes ruthless society, there are places, such as the family, to learn to forgive one another.”
“Forgiveness makes society less mean and cruel.”
“The synod has revived our hope in this: The ability to forgive and to be forgiven is part of the vocation and mission of the family. The practice of forgiveness not only saves families from division, but also enables them to help society to be less mean and less cruel. Yes, every act of forgiveness repairs the cracks in the house and strengthens its walls….
“I assure you, dear families, that if you are able to walk with ever greater determination on the path of the Beatitudes, learning and teaching how to forgive one other, in the great family of the Church the ability to bear witness to the renewing power of God’s forgiveness will grow. Otherwise, we will preach beautifully and perhaps even cast out demons, but in the end the Lord will not see us as his disciples, because we didn’t have the ability to forgive and to be forgiven by others.”
"Christian families can do much for today’s society."
“Truly, Christian families can do much for today’s society and also for the Church. I therefore wish that, during the Jubilee of Mercy, families rediscover the treasure of mutual forgiveness. Let us pray that families increasingly are able to live and to build concrete roads of reconciliation, where no one feels abandoned to the weight of his trespasses. And with this intention, let us say together: ‘Our Father, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ Let’s say it together: ‘Our Father, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ Thank you!”
by Sr. Mary Peter, FSP