Tag Archives: forgiveness

PENTECOST, 2017

I haven’t done a survey, but I would think that fewer & fewer Catholics today would hold that in those words about forgiving sins Jesus was talking to priests and establishing the Sacrament of Penance, or Confession, as some still call it. I believe he was not. He was speaking to the community of his faithful followers and he seems rather to be saying that forgiveness is more than a juridical act, a removal of the charges against an accused or guilty person. Even after being acquitted by the court, the defendant may not feel the healing effect of personal forgiveness.

What I hear Jesus saying in today’s Gospel passage is that we are given an awesome power over each other, the power to make each other feel whole and good and worthwhile and accepted and valued and loved – even after we’ve done something terribly wrong and shameful and are repenting in misery. Jesus seems to be implying that God heals us through each other. That’s the meaning of his words, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

In a way, we might say that God is limited by what we are willing to do. So, if someone you’ve offended refuses to grant you total, unconditional forgiveness, you don’t get it! You remain unhealed, unhappy, and sick in spirit. God in each of us can reach others only in so far as we make that possible.

Therefore, if we are willing to be generous life-givers to each other, we find that we have far more to offer than merely our own human resources: we recognize that we are also instruments of God’s own power of love and wisdom – love that soothes and heals, wisdom that guides and directs. We are channels of God’s power, which far exceeds our human limitations.

A spiritual person is one who lives his or her life always conscious of that divine presence, constantly trying to collaborate with its power and direction.

I am convinced that we have interpreted much too narrowly the relationship between the Spirit of God and us Christians. Just consider these three major aspects of our Christian faith and practice: 1) this Feast of Pentecost, which we are celebrating today and which is recounted in the bible with so much rich symbolism; 2) our traditional devotion to the Holy Spirit; and 3) our one-time reception of the sacrament of Confirmation –these certainly can lead us to believe that we Christians have been given by God an exclusive privilege denied to 9/10ths of the people of the world. That can’t be true. We are all creatures of the same loving God, whose Spirit acts in all who allow her to. From religion to religion we name that God differently, but, as the Scripture readings for today emphasize, it is the same Spirit in each and all of us.

I believe it is true that more wars have been fought over religion than over all other causes. We continue to see religious wars in our own lifetime – bloody ones in the Middle East, acrimonious ones here in our own country. When will they stop once and for all? Only when mercy triumphs over vengeance, when love conquers hatred, when we look at the stranger with eager anticipation instead of resentment and fear, when our first response to offense is forgiveness. We Christians can help by recognizing that Pentecost is our name for a phenomenon that is as old as creation itself: God acting everywhere in God’s beloved universe and in everyone who is willing.

Let’s start again, right where we live, no matter how small the step.

Happy Pentecost to all!

Advertisements

7TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

Several years ago, as I finished a talk to a large group of New Jersey public school principals, a very big man walked up to me, smiled and said gently, “Father, would you accept a bit of advice from a layman?” I said I would, of course. He responded, “We’re not supposed to fight evil with anger and violence. There’s only one way that evil of any kind will be disarmed and converted: we have to smother it with love.”

And then he pressed something hard and angular into the palm of my right hand and said, “Please take this crucifix as a reminder of Jesus and of me. He conquered evil and death only with love, and he told us to do the same.”

At that time, I had been a priest for more than 30 years, and here was this stranger, a layman, as he said, suggesting not so subtly that I had somehow been missing the central doctrine of Jesus’ teaching. He was reflecting back to me that there had been some angry righteousness and vengeance in the talk I had just given about the sexual abuse of children and not enough of unconditional love like that of Jesus.

It turned out that the stranger was actually a famous star of West Coast TV and had no connection with religious broadcasting. The humble crucifix he gave me is only 3-or-so inches high, made of rough wood, and has pasted on it a Byzantine picture of Jesus on his cross. It’s been on my bedroom night table ever since, not as a charm or even a sacramental, but simply as a reminder that the only force that Jesus authorized his followers to use is the force of love as unconditional as we can make it.

But — does that mean that we are to love serial murderers, drug pushers and exploiters of the innocent? I know on the one hand what I feel about that, but I remember too that it was a very angry Jesus who turned over the tables of the crooked money-changers in the temple while whipping them with knotted cords. Then again, I am also certain, from all else he said and did, that we must continue trying to meet all conflicts, all personal attacks, all anger and evil intentions that come our way with a love and compassion that alone can ultimately conquer evil and help the evil-doer henceforth to choose what is right and good.

During the days that I was writing this homily, I chanced to speak with a man who had just been to the funeral of a man with whom he had once worked in the same financial corporation. Some years before his death, the deceased person had cleverly stolen from him a substantial amount of money. Once a very close and trusted friend, he never apologized, never admitted his crime. His victim told me that ever since he discovered what had been done to him, he struggled with his Christian obligation to forgive and found it very difficult to do. He said that he became haunted by Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies,” and tried to squeeze out of those words every ounce of meaning they contained.

A while before the death and funeral, it all became much clearer to him and led to a conversion. He was still thinking over how he would go about telling his defrauder that he forgave him, when the man died. My friend went to his funeral as a way of letting him know he was forgiven.

That’s taking Jesus and his teachings seriously. It left my friend in peace, a peace, he said, he could never otherwise have attained.

To all of you who are participating in this Mass, I wish peace, deep and lasting, and also the faith and the courage to do or say what you must in order to achieve it.

24TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME 2016

We’ve all noticed the begrudging attitude that some people have toward those who gain an advantage without having paid the price that they themselves paid. Immediately they say, “Hey, that’s not fair! Why should they get that break without doing anything to earn it?” The fact that whatever the gain was in no way penalizes the complainer doesn’t seem to count for much. Actually it’s envy at work here — displeasure over someone else’s success. It’s a very limited concept of justice: Why should someone else get for free what I paid plenty for?

So what is it among us humans that we can so easily resent the good fortune of others? I do know that the question concerned Jesus; he addressed it in more than one of his parables. We just heard what could be the most famous of them all about the envy of an older son at his brother’s unearned reprieve.

What his younger brother got, without meriting it, was simply what the older brother had been enjoying right along in his life of faithful service to his father: it was the generous, tender love that that good man had lavished on both sons and which one of them shamefully betrayed. The older son was angry and resentful, not because their father forgave his wayward brother and opened his home and his heart unconditionally to him, but because no price was demanded of him, no penalty was imposed. It just wasn’t fair!

The older son failed to see that his brother had hurt himself more than anyone else. The father’s forgiveness was directed to a badly hurting son, no matter that the wounds were self-inflicted. (Maybe Jesus had his own approaching death in mind when he told this story: he would surrender his life, not only for the good and the blameless, but especially for those who were mired in their sinful ways.)

Jesus’ parables are better understood if we consider them under different headings or categories. Some (for example, those of the past few Sundays) belong under the heading of the cost of being a follower of Jesus. Today’s parable of the prodigal son and the forgiving father I would place in the category of God’s compassionate call to sinful persons, a title and an idea that might cause some people to grumble!

Jesus is a revolutionary; he says things that the world had never heard before. He confronts our normal ways of thinking and responding. What is acceptable to the world, he says, is not always a high enough standard for his followers.

When, just eighteen years ago, Carla Faye Tucker, the murderess, was executed by the State of Texas, even after the unquestionable conversion she had gone through in prison, many of us would have rejoiced had her life been spared and the mercy of God had been matched by the mercy of the courts. But then, how many others thought, “Good! She had it coming to her”?

The mercy of God far surpasses our human compassion. The lesson of Jesus’ touching story, it seems to me, is that we must learn to be happy whenever anyone, no matter his or her background, accepts God’s merciful forgiveness and tries to live a more human life of goodness and love. Whether the person moves toward that fuller life in God by an unbroken series of steps in the right direction, or at some point along the way is called out of evil to accept the gift of conversion, what in the end is the difference? All that matters is that eventually they – and all of us — consciously and deliberately live in the love of our God, as shown to us by Jesus.

5TH SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2016

As so many of us do, I occasionally embark on an all-out clean-up campaign at my house.  This year’s event took place this past week with a hired group of three excellent housecleaners.  While they were doing their thing, I was trying to organize and simplify my life by eliminating the clutter that had built up in closets and drawers.  Each time I do this, I get bogged down by my files: I lose myself in nostalgia when even 1975 can seem like ancient history.  I shake my head or laugh at something I wrote back then, hoping that no one else has saved it!

And then my heart pounds and my mouth goes dry as I relive some sensitive conflict graphically recounted in the thrust & parry of exchanged letters.

You know the drill well, I’m sure.

On one of these assaults a few years ago, I found the deliberately saved letter of a man concerning the very hurtful, unchristian behavior of another in a very serious and consequential matter.  The writer of the letter was deeply offended by the behavior in question, yet he was able to say, with unmistakable sincerity and not a hint of condescension, “I feel sorrow for the terrible thing he has done, because he has wounded himself more than anyone else, and it grieves me to see such needless, self-inflicted pain.  I pray for him, that he’ll recover from this lapse and be his true self once more.”

I thought it was providential, that I should have come upon that letter in time to use it as a way of appreciating more deeply the gospel account proclaimed on this 5th Sunday of Easter.  Jesus knows full well what Judas’s act of betrayal will cost him – his life.  Despite that, we hear from him not a word of anger or vengeance or condemnation, but only love.  This is a perfect example of Jesus showing us how to be human.  Can we imagine a response more godly than this one – to love the one who is facilitating your execution?

Down the ages, fiction has celebrated such heights of unselfish, forgiving love.  In that connection, I always think first of Billy Budd, unjustly condemned and asking God’s blessing on the ship captain who ordered his hanging.  Real life can be every bit as noble and inspiring.  In his book Days of Grace, that great African American, tennis world champion, loving husband and father, Arthur Ashe answered the question about how he felt toward the anonymous person who passed on to him the lethal AIDS virus in a blood transfusion.  He expressed only sentiments of compassion and concern for the person, whoever he or she was, who caused his death.

No matter the crude, rude, vitriolic words we are daily hearing from the presidential election campaigns, it is not true to say that people really don’t act in such decent, heroic ways.  They do.  Many known and unknown heroes do.  The Jesus who forgave Judas continues to forgive in the lives of such good people.  If you look around again, you will see them.  You may even find yourself among them.

We say so often and so glibly, “Forgive us, Father, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  If we gave to that challenge only half what we have given to “being good Catholics,” we’d be so much closer to the Creator’s will for us.  The folk philosopher and wit, Garrison Keeler, says there’s no more chance of our becoming real Christians simply by going to church faithfully than of our becoming a car by sleeping in the garage.  Now there’s something to think about.

With increasing age, I find myself leaning more & more toward the conviction that the ultimate test of our Christian spirituality is our willingness to forgive and to love those who have hurt us.

Let’s keep trying, especially in this time of Easter grace.

2ND SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2016

I expect never to hear of a real-life example of human love more remarkable and inspiring than that of an elderly couple interviewed on TV several years ago.  Their beautiful daughter had been brutally assaulted and then murdered by a young man.  He was arrested and brought to trial.  It was an open & shut case: he was guilty.  The deceased girl’s parents were asked how they felt toward her assailant.  And this gentle, getting-on-in-years couple responded, He is God’s child also, even though what he did to our daughter was horrible beyond words.  We don’t want him to be executed or to suffer the rest of his life. We are praying for him, that he’ll repent of his crime and accept the grace of God in rebuilding his life so that he can help others, no longer hurt them.  (It still gives me a thrill to recall and repeat that.)

If that isn’t a modern version of Jesus’ death on the cross, I don’t know what is.  “Father, forgive them.  They don’t know what they are doing.”  Just imagine what kind of world ours would be if every human being had that generous, loving, forgiving, life-giving attitude toward all others!

But that’s precisely what we said yes to when we decided to become Christians.

It’s possible, you know, that, although we were baptized and well instructed in our faith, some of us, maybe many of us, never did really decide personally to become followers of Jesus.

We learn that we’ve made that decision when we look at someone’s crime or evil act and say, “That’s probably the worst thing this person has ever done; but how much good she must also have accomplished. I pray that she will recover from this terrible decision, make amends for what she has done and move on to a good and unselfishly loving life.”

Against the background of a maze of legal nit-picking, Jesus spoke of only two laws: first, love God, your creator; the second: love everyone else, without exception.  Give extravagantly, he taught us; resolve always to forgive, not merely to punish; reward in excess of merit; let your love go beyond the requirements of justice.

It’s as if God were saying through Jesus, “You are made in my image & likeness.  And I am infinitely more than just; I am loving and merciful.  I am forgetful of your faults and always aware of your marvelous potential.  You are less likely to sense my presence in the good order of a tribunal than you are in the splendid splashes of skies and forests and the bottomless well of a mother’s love!”

The Scriptures tell of signs & wonders the early disciples were performing and observing after Jesus’ resurrection from death.  Among them there surely had to be the “miracles” of persons acting in ways that are certainly not normally human.  They were returning love for hatred, accepting hurts with patience and even cheerfulness, giving without thought to cost, forgiving with no strings attached, and rejoicing in the success of others.

People couldn’t help but notice.

The age of miracles has not passed.

Happy Easter!

HOMILY FOR GOOD FRIDAY 2015

Our emotions are never the most important components of religion and faith.  We have all seen the rituals of certain religions in which emotions are fanned to white hot intensity, and most of us would conclude that there’s not much, if any, engagement of the intellect or the spirit in such frenzy.  Usually, it’s an orchestrated “high” that makes the participant feel she is in an other-worldly state of being – and that’s all.

Genuine appreciation of Jesus’ passion and death takes the form of deep gratitude for the totally unselfish gift of himself and of committing ourselves to join him in the transformation of the world into the very Kingdom of God on earth.

That gratitude does not have to be accompanied by tears or emotional response of any sort.  It is proven, it is validated, by our personal involvement in the cause for which he offered and gave his life – which was what?  That we, God’s human creatures, would all be one, living in peace, harmony, and mutual respect –

– that we would know beyond all doubt that we are loved unconditionally by our Creator and are called into existence primarily to love all other creatures;

– that we are to be about the business of building the Kingdom of God here on Planet Earth by every constructive, supportive, forgiving, healing, life-giving word, action, and attitude that we can contribute.

So what will we do, not just today but every day, to advance that blessed cause?  That is the question that opens the way to the only acceptable response to Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. 

I have a friend who is very successful in the world of finance and business; he is also a loving husband and father, a faithfully practicing Catholic, a generous giver to others in need.  Our last meeting began with his telling me that he is very depressed by the worsening condition of our world: the wars, the suicide bombings, the abuse of children, the corruption in government and industry and finance, and so on.

I asked him if, when he was a child, accommodations of any kind were made for handicapped persons.  He said no, none that he could recall.

Were the retarded, as we used to call them, or brain injured children on his block or in his neighborhood written off as idiots, as misfits?  He said yes.  He remembered occasionally making fun of them along with his young friends.

Did he know of any war previous to World War II after which the conquerors helped the conquered to recover and build a new future?  He answered no.

I asked him, on the basis of that little quiz, to think about the progress we are making as we continue in the evolutionary development of the human race.  I urged him not to be discouraged by the progress we still have not achieved and to keep in mind that we are a people on the move (as was emphasized in the Holy Thursday ritual of last night), not wandering aimlessly, trying to find our way, but being led by the very Spirit of God.  He said that such thoughts, which he had not been alluding to for some time, did make him feel better and more hopeful.

What Jesus did, in his life and in his accepted death, was for the sake of us here on earth.  He admitted that he could not accomplish the task alone.  He needs us, he invites us, he waits for us to commit ourselves with increasing generosity to the lifelong project that he himself has undertaken.

Our response to Good Friday is to resolve again to join him in living lives of love, compassion, forgiveness, faith, and perseverance – learning by experience that sometimes our efforts, like his, require a painful price.