Wednesday, May 4, 2011

“…As We Forgive…”

Unless you’re a Dominican—or you listened on Friday to a wedding homily by an Anglican bishop at Westminster Abbey—last week’s memorial in honor of St. Catherine of Siena went largely unnoticed. That’s because it fell during Easter Week, when each day, even Friday, is a solemnity, the highest ranking feast on the Church calendar. Solemnities dwarf even giants like Catherine.

Pauline Books & Media just published Paths of Holiness: Wisdom From Catherine of Siena. The book is the latest in its series, the Classic Wisdom Collection, an encounter with the spiritual masters of Catholic tradition. For its inspiration and entertainment value, the introduction by Sr. Lea Hill is worth the book. That makes the section “On Reconciliation” a real bonus. Part of Catherine’s exhortation to Charles V, King of France, is quoted in “Weekly PauLine” on the right sidebar.

In the current socio-political climate, it should gives us pause. Last year it was moving to listen to three of our sisters—Elizabeth Borobia, Raymond Marie Gerard, and Sharon Anne Legere—tell of reconciliation retreats they had led in Boston parishes over the previous months. It’s no secret that this archdiocese has had more than its share of crucifying incidents, so the healing has been all the more poignant.

Outreach was directed to those parishes that suffered either because of clergy sex abuse or parish mergers. The purpose was to bring people together around Luke’s Gospel story of the resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13f., as it happens, this Sunday’s selection). A multi-media experience, it led people to a personal and communal meeting with Christ in the Word and Eucharist. At one church, parishioners whom the sisters trained to give the mission with them later assumed leadership roles in the community that they hadn’t had before. At another, one woman who had considered not attending said, “Now I understand what Church is really all about—not a building but a community.”

Extending and expanding the reach of the missions was the book and media display that accompanied each one. The hunger for the Word of God awakened by the mission was fed there and facilitated other forms of inner healing. Quite a few said, “I will never read Scriptures the same way again.”

Does such healing of individuals have a cosmic counterpart? Or does the pragmatic nature of “life in the real world” preclude this? Monday’s edition of Ad Age Mediaworks studied the front page of a dozen U.S. newspapers that reported the death of Osama bin Laden. Headlines ranged from matter-of-fact announcements to vengeful, even crude, gloating. The most vitriolic appeared, not surprisingly, in New York. The display of sanctioned hatred, the dancing in the streets, stunned one Boston Globe letter writer into asking what had happened to “her” America.

No doubt most of us remember where we were on 9/11. What stayed with me was the Scripture from Mass the Thursday morning after that terrible Tuesday. Jesus’ challenge in the Gospel reading from Luke was searing: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you and pray for those who maltreat you.” I felt “slapped on one cheek,”  not by al-Qaeda, but by Jesus, and I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to “give him the other”! What in the name of God does this mean two days after my country was attacked? Our chaplain, too, found it hard to wrap his mind and heart around the passage. Sr. Elizabeth told me how several of our sisters in Latin America e-mailed her that they were praying that text with us. Clearly the Word was doing its job. Like Jacob wrestling with the messenger of God, we are meant to grapple with the message of God.

Now with the death of Public Enemy Number One, we have a chance to revisit that message—if we dare. I think we can, accompanied by the now Blessed John Paul II, in his encyclical, The Mercy of God (nn. 4-6).

We often see love and mercy as the opposite of justice. Actually, says John Paul, justice is fulfilled through mercy! He defines justice, not as the act of giving people what they deserve, but as faithfulness to who we are by restoring others to who they are meant to be. In Gospel-speak, that’s summed up in one word: salvation. God isn’t satisfied to leave us in our fallen condition; because of who he is—Love—he is driven to remake us in his image again. This is what grace—God in us—does. This is salvation.

There’s more. In the prodigal son story, the father, to be true to himself, to who he was as father, felt moved, almost obliged, by love and hesed, (faithfulness) to restore his son to himself by reaffirming the young man’s sonship. Through mercy the father (God) made things right again (justice) between himself and his son.

Commenting on the story, John Paul recognizes that mercy doesn’t ignore what went wrong or refuse to hold people accountable for their actions. Individuals and societies must be protected. We see that in his own life, when he visited his assailant in prison to extend his forgiveness. After that meeting, Mehmet Ali Acga  remained behind bars, but to the extent that he accepted the forgiveness given to him, he was free.

There once was a violent man who was so committed to his own idea of God that he imprisoned men and women who refused to accept it and had them executed. What must it have been like to be the son or daughter, brother or sister, husband or wife of one of these martyrs, when Saul of Tarsus—later Paul the Apostle—flipped over to The Way, gave up his jihad, and started preaching on behalf of the God of those martyrs? The process of forgiveness became their journey, not just his, even after his conversion. Human nature being what it is, my guess is that his conversion actually made it harder. Remember the prodigal’s big brother (Lk. 15:11f.).

Conversion of St. Paul,
What if Osama bin Laden had returned genuinely repentant? What would my reaction have been? Would I have asked Caesar for mercy, or would I have demanded that our gladiators finish him off? What does this say, not only about our sense of mercy, but now about our sense of justice?

Justice is not done to families who lost loved ones, simply because a man has died. The world must protect itself against threats, but this is not the heart of  justice. Neither is revenge. Justice will not be done until hearts are changed—“theirs” and “ours.” A reductionist view of justice—giving people what they deserve—is a dead end. Deciding what people deserve varies, depending on which side of the fence they’re on. Who gets to decide? The victor?

Joan of Arc led her army to victory, but wept at the deaths of France’s enemies, because they died unreconciled to God, “unrestored” as John Paul’s might have said. John Paul II, Antoinette Bosco, Corrie Ten Boom, the Amish community who reached out to the man who senselessly butchered its children, and Rwandans who now share the secret of inner healing with other Africans are just some of our world’s contemporary icons of forgiveness. I was awed by comments of Harry Waizer reported in Monday’s New York Times. The man had sustained third-degree burns in the World Trade Center, but when asked, he said he couldn’t bring himself to rejoice over the death of yet another person (and he used that word), even if it was bin Laden.

The Passover ritual, which celebrates God’s salvation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, concludes with God’s exhortation to pray for the Egyptians who had drowned in the process, since “no one shall celebrate the destruction of any of His human creations.”  Maybe, as pundit Jon Stewart confessed, it’s too early and we’re too close to be rational at this moment. Perhaps being rational is not where we need to be. We can start by being prayerful. That certainly is what Pope Benedict is recommending, seeing in this event a call to reflect on our responsibility to others and to God.

And this Friday, go to the movies. A new film, There Be Dragons, premieres in select cities.

From the Web site: “Roland Joffé, the director who brought us the highly acclaimed and deeply spiritual film The Mission has returned to his roots with the epic movie There Be Dragons, a powerful story of war, tragedy, love and redemption. Set during the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War [1930s], Dragons tells the story of two childhood friends who become separated during the political conflict to find themselves on opposite sides as war erupts.

“One chooses the path of peace and becomes a priest while the other chooses the life of a soldier driven by jealousy and revenge. Each will struggle to find the power of forgiveness over the forces that tore their lives and friendship apart.”

The priest happens to be Josemaria Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei. I attended the pre-screening last fall, and like several in the audience, could not have definitively told you what the movie was primarily about. I understand that some improvements have been made, but I haven’t viewed the finished product yet.

The cinematography is worthy of a Joffé film and vividly portrays the violence of the age. For that reason it is by no means a film for children. I found the fiction a little too unconvincing, yet was convicted by the message. It is less a film about Escrivá—in fact, it is no longer being billed as such—than a portrayal of the destructiveness of vengeance and the healing power of reconciliation. Definitely worth seeing and absorbing.

“I think Roland’s message is a lesson in how we can go beyond the ego, transcend the human flaws that we all live with and threaten to imprison us. I think it’s about how can we do that not just as people, but as societies” Actor Charlie Cox (Escrivá).

                                            Prayer for World Leaders    

God our Father, through the intercession of Blessed John Paul, grant the leaders of nations a clear vision of the dignity of all peoples and a commitment to seek the well-being of all. Give our world leaders the perseverance needed to work through the complex issues of governance. Bless them with integrity of thought, word, and deed so that their efforts will always flow from your plan of justice and mercy. Protect them in times of danger. Comfort them in times of discouragement.
     May Blessed John Paul’s example inspire them to solidarity with the poor and working people, and to a tempering of their power and influence with true compassion. Amen.
From: Prayers to Blessed John Paul II 


  1. This is a lovely post. Bitterness and revenge damage our spiritual, mental and physical health.
    In short we harm ourselves more.

    "But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (Luke 6:27-28).

    "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”- Mahatma Gandhi

  2. I love that quote of Gandhi, John. Thank you for sharing his insight--and yours--with us.

  3. Saint Thomas of Aquinas said: "If Justice is not regulated by Mercy, Justice becomes Crudelty". Justice and Mercy are not opposite, and each one needs of the other one to be really perfect and true. We can learn about their deep union and communion only in our lovely God: "Our God is plenty of Justice and Mercy. His Mercy is just, and His Justice is merciful" (Saint Augustin of Hippo).

  4. It must be because God's attributes are synonymous with himself. They only seem different because of the way God interacts with us: in justice at one time, in mercy at another. You are right, I think: We can see how they complement each other only "in our lovely God."


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