…There is a simple secret for healing wounds and undoing accusations: never let the day finish without apologising. … If we learn to say we are sorry immediately and to offer mutual forgiveness, the wounds are healed, the marriage is strengthened, and the family becomes an increasingly solid home that resists the shocks of our evils, great and small.” Pope Francis, General Audience, November 4, 2015
It can be incredibly difficult to forgive another when we feel deep inside our hearts that by offering pardon we are sacrificing a sense of justice. The truth of the matter, though, is that forgiveness does not diminish justice, but simply leaves it up to God.
As Christians, we believe that at the end times there will be retribution; the righteous will be given the gift of remunerative justice, and those who have freely chosen to remain far away from God in this life will experience God’s retributive justice. So will those who have hurt us eventually have to answer to Christ, the ultimate judge. We know that nothing will remain hidden or unknown (Matthew 10:26) because all will one day be revealed; there is nothing that God does not know.
We know the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant where the Master forgives his servant for a large debt, but then the servant in turn refuses to forgive a smaller debt of his fellow servant. The Master rebukes the first servant for his lack of mercy, and throws him in prison until his larger debt would be paid in total, which would actually be beyond his lifespan. The first servant lacked great humility when he punished his fellow servant, and acted as if he had never needed forgiveness, himself.
The lesson is profoundly important: If we do not find in our hearts to forgive those who have sinned against us, how can we then expect our Heavenly Father to be merciful and to forgive us? (Matthew 18:21-35)
If we make the conscientious decision to not forgive another we become entangled in the deadly sin of pride, which tempts us to justify additional sins, like wrath. Thus, we lose our inner peace; we lose our ability to love without conditions. Anger, bitterness, and hatred consume our heart, mind, and soul, and the space that is reserved for Christ and Christ alone is taken up by feelings that only bring us more hurt and suffering. We cannot help, then but to become distanced from God, and by our own choosing. Not so very different than those who reject God outright, then.
Our loving Father in Heaven does not want us to spend the rest of our earthly lives imprisoned by our own obstinacy.
At the very start of his Maxims, St. Philip Neri, a great saint of the Reformation said,
“If a man finds it very hard to forgive injuries, let him look at a Crucifix, and think that
Christ shed all His Blood for him, and not only forgave His enemies, but even prayed His
Heavenly Father to forgive them also. Let him remember that when he says the Pater
Noster, every day, instead of asking pardon for his sins, he is calling down vengeance on
Himself.” (1, 2)
Several times as a young adult sitting on the floor of my room did I clutch tightly the Crucifix, weeping uncontrollably with red and swollen eyes as I would imagine myself at the foot of the Cross and then whisper to Jesus, “Forgive them Lord, they know not what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) If Christ could forgive his enemies from the Cross, those who mocked and tormented Him, then I could do the same, or at least make room to do so. What I found was that, in my willingness to offer my suffering up to Christ, to ask his forgiveness for those who hurt me, I was able to move through the pain and then move on, when I otherwise can’t imagine managing it.
It is not natural, this sort of determined forgiveness. It is supernatural. We act on a supernatural level by allowing the graces of the Holy Spirit to work within us, and place our “littleness” before God. Placing ourselves (and our tormentors) at the feet of Jesus we can surrender our prideful self-will and imitate Christ’s example of mercy and love.
We can look to the Saints who have gone before us to offer us inspiration, and to help us to choose forgiveness. St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, offers us a powerful witness before he was stoned to death, by his last words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60) Another model of forgiveness is St. Maria Goretti, Virgin and Martyr, who before taking her last breath, forgave her assailant, Alessandro Serenelli, after he stabbed her fourteen times. Similarly, St. Pope John Paul II, after being shot and seriously wounded, visited his assailant in prison to express his forgiveness. We can also look to the words of St. John Vianney, who once said, “the saints have no hatred, no bitterness, they forgive everything, and they think they deserve much more for their offenses against God.”
In choosing forgiveness we allow the light of Christ to radiate outward from the inner depths of our souls. We can cling to the Cross and unite our immense suffering to Jesus by drawing closer and closer to Him. He is the Wounded-healer and He can heal our wounds, but only if we let him by allowing the inner working of the Holy Spirit to transform our deepest hurts into a fountain of love and mercy. The gateway of our hearts will open to receive peace as we are set free from the yoke of bondage, set free of the self-prison that we create for ourselves when we are held captive by our own pride.
St. Teresa of Calcutta has said, “If we really want to love, we must learn how to forgive,” and as Christians we should truly strive to put such words into practice in our everyday lives because only forgiveness can set us free.