As we go further into the season of Lent, I would like to share a few ideas with you on one theme that should be practiced long after Lent is over. It is the quality of forgiveness. Our criteria for practicing forgiveness is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. If you study the Gospels quite closely you might remember that there was a dialogue that took place between the apostle Peter and Christ himself. Peter said to Christ, "Master, do you know that the old law says that we should be willing to forgive seven times a day". And Christ answered by saying, "but Peter the new law I give you is that you must be willing to forgive seventy times seven times a day". If you study Scripture, most Biblical scholars will tell you that the expression seventy times seven refers to the infinite forgiveness that God has for each one of us on a daily basis. The element of forgiveness is something that has to be implemented according to the teachings of Jesus Christ in our society.
"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do"
Christ, during the Lord's Prayer, told us we must forgive those who trespass against us. Christ, on the cross, when he spoke his last few words said "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do". If you do a great deal of marriage counseling, as I do and have done over the years, you easily conclude that so many husbands and wives would have had better and happier marriages if they knew how to forgive. Oftentimes, when you take a course in public speaking, you are taught that the most difficult words to speak are the words, "peter piper picked a peck of pickled peppers". But what you find in marriage, especially in marriage counseling, is that many husbands and wives do not know how to say "I am sorry, it was my fault".
Someone has convinced married people, whether it is a husband or wife, that they always have to be right. If you study why there are so many divorces today you easily find that the element of forgiveness is lacking in many relationships as the marriage develops. What we have forgotten about forgiveness is that when someone hurts us, yes, we offer them forgiveness and try to effect a reconciliation, but forgiveness is not just for the person who has hurt us, forgiveness is also for the person who has been hurt.
Mother Teresa used to have the saying, "let go and let God in". She was referring to forgiveness. She was saying anyone who has been hurt, anyone who has been the victim of a malicious tongue or malicious act, can easily fall into the trap about thinking about it morning, noon and night. As long as you harbor a hatred because you have been hurt, as long as you carry a grudge because you have been hurt, it develops in your personality a negative corrosive quality that is like a cancer, eventually it hurts you more than you ever realize.
It is a quality holding onto a grudge that prevents us from getting on rightly with the rest of our lives. It is always holding us back so we never totally grow up. That is why it is necessary not only to forgive the other based on the teaching of Christ, but also to let go of the hurt the other has caused. Holding onto a hurt, holding onto a grievance, harboring a hatred, only sets you back. It does not hurt the person who originally hurt you.
A couple of years ago I had the occasion at Sloan Kettering to anoint and give the last rites of the Catholic Church to a father of three sons. He was loaded with cancer. After I blessed him, heard his confession, gave him communion and finally anointed him, the man died about an hour later. One of the sons met me in the corridor and really denounced me for giving this man the sacrament of reconciliation with God. And he said, "don't you know my father was gay?" Since I had other hospital calls that day, I did not have any time to spend with him. But I often wonder what kind of a Catholic that is that can be so judgmental and so self righteous that he knows who should be forgiven and who should not be forgiven. Clinically I know that there are about 4 million married men in this country who are totally gay. If you relied on how to administer the sacrament of forgiveness from some of these narrowed minded lay people, you would be failing to fulfill the work that Christ ordained you to do.
During the past I had the opportunity to talk to one of the three psychiatrist with whom I worked in New York. Wonderful men. One of them, a devote Jewish person whom I highly respect, said to me, "Father Mark, I have got to ask you something," he said, "you have been hearing confessions for almost fifty years. You have given absolution, reconciliation and forgiveness to thousands of people whose confessions you have heard. You have done what other Catholic priests have done, not only throughout the country, but throughout the world". The Jewish psychiatrist asked, "Father, explain this to me, if you, as a Catholic priest, from what I have been reading in the news papers make one mistake, some of your Catholic parishioners are more cruel, more self righteous and more judgmental than any one we would ever have in the Jewish faith. What has happened to their understanding of forgiveness as Christ taught in the Gospel?"
I said, "Bill, when you analyze why so many young men today are not becoming priests, one of the reasons the young men will tell you is that they are often cruelly criticized based on rumor or gossip, not facts, by many of the lay people in their own parish. This is hurting the Church. There is no question about it, we have to be as forgiving to those Catholics who are so critical of others as Christ was when he was on the cross saying "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
The sacrament of forgiveness or reconciliation means that one day the Muslims and the Christians have to forgive each other. It means that the Palestinians and the Jewish people have to forgive each other. It means that the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland have to forgive each other. But, it is also a reminder to each one of us if we don't forgive the trespass of those with whom we live and work, and if we think we can be very judgmental knowing so few facts, then our lives will never be at peace, our homes will never have true peace. One of the things Christ wanted us to have is true peace when he said to Magdalene, "go in peace and sin no more."