A Homily on Forgiveness


I began my pilgrimage like many of you on Sunday afternoon, in my case by flying down to Stansted from Edinburgh. On the flight, I tried to ‘tick off’ some of the magazines that had piled up beside my bed in recent weeks – including ‘Africa’, the monthly periodical produced by the Kiltegan Fathers. While flicking through its pages, I was very struck by a photograph of two men sitting talking – above an article entitled ‘From Freedom Fighter to Healer’ – struck mainly because one of the two, a bearded middle-aged white man called Michael Lapsley, had artificial hands.

Reading the article, I discovered that Michael Lapsley was an Anglican priest, who was prominent in the fight against apartheid. After he had been expelled from South Africa, on 28 April 1990 he received a package which contained two religious magazines…and a parcel bomb which exploded. It destroyed his two hands and one of his eyes, shattered his hearing, gave him extensive burns and left him close to death for three months. As I read on, one sentence leapt out at me: the interviewer asked him ‘what would you do if you met the people who sent the bomb?’ Fr Michael replied ‘It depends. If they still have not come to see the evil of what they have done, I have no wish to see them. However, if their past actions are now causing them suffering, I know I have the key to release them from that suffering and I would turn it. We often speak as if forgiveness is cheap and easy. It is costly, painful and difficult. There is need to hear an acknowledgement of what has been done.’

Forgiveness…..also the focus of today’s ‘Thought for the Day’ in the liturgy handbook, which suggests – accurately – that it is at the heart of Christianity, but which then goes on to state: ‘we are asked to forgive anyone who irritates, upsets or hurts us whether they know it or not’.

There seem to be two very contrasting attitudes evident here: conditional forgiveness, requiring ‘an acknowledgement of what has been done’ – and unconditional forgiveness, to be given ‘whether they know it or not’. Which of the two is the correct Christian attitude?

I want to offer a few thoughts on the subject because it is such an important area of life for so many of us – and perhaps especially during a pilgrimage to Lourdes. It’s been wisely said, it’s as if we lose a layer of skin here, and as a result many things bubble to the surface, including our hurts and resentments. I know that happens to me – highlighting the fact that in recent years the question of forgiveness has become a major issue in my life: who does God require me to forgive…..and what if I’m not willing to forgive yet – or even, possibly not willing to forgive at all?

As a consequence, I wish to offer six observations, borne of a long struggle with this most complex of subjects. The first concerns God and God’s forgiveness of us; the other five are more concerned with issues surrounding our forgiveness of others.

It seems clear from the gospels that God’s forgiveness of us is unconditional, but that it is never forced on us. Rather, whenever we act sinfully, God’s forgiveness is freely offered. The invitation facing us then is willingly to accept this gift of forgiveness – by expressing our sorrow in a genuine way for what ‘we have done and what we have failed to do’.

I am greatly struck how often in the gospels Jesus speaks about forgiveness: how often, for instance, he communicates that God seeks out the sinner, as in the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin, and that we only have to turn to him to be forgiven, as in the parable of the Prodigal Son. It would appear Jesus knows how many of us live, or at some point have lived, in the grip of the destructive guilt of feeling we can’t be forgiven for what we’ve done – and so he reveals that forgiveness by God is never something we have to earn; rather, that we have a God who forgives us gratuitously and with love when we turn to him in our heart.

That’s why the ‘penance’ in the sacrament of reconciliation is so poorly named. This ‘penance’, suggests a task that needs to be accomplished in order that we be fully forgiven; when the reality is that what we are asked to say or do is intended much more as an expression of gratitude for the forgiveness freely given us than as a punishment for what we might have done wrong.

The second observation: I will always remember the wisdom of something I heard twenty years ago in Leuven in Belgium from the lips of a Flemish Salesian priest called Roger Burgraaeve: nobody has the right to tell another person that they must or should forgive somebody. Roger Burgraaeve was an expert on the writings of a Jewish philosopher, Levinas, who had lived through the Holocaust. Levinas offered as a reason for such a stance that no one can ever know what another person has suffered……and therefore, as Roger Burgraaeve pointed out, you can make a person, who has already suffered greatly, suffer more still – by placing on them what can at times feel like an impossible burden of forgiveness.

The third observation is that reconciliation and forgiveness are not the same thing. Five years ago, when I was living through a crisis in my own life, I was greatly helped by a wise old Jesuit, Gerry O’Mahony, when he made this point, and when he added that in his opinion reconciliation is conditional, forgiveness unconditional. He said that this was because reconciliation with the person who had hurt you was sometimes not possible – as, for example, when the other person had died, or when the other person was not willing to be reconciled; while at other times, reconciliation was not wise, because it would be psychologically harmful to be in contact with the other person – or would damage you in another way.

But, you might respond, what about that commandment of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (Mt 5.23) to be reconciled before you go up to the altar of God? It was only very recently that I became aware that what Jesus actually says in that passage is that if your brother has something against you, you must reconcile with him – NOT that if you’ve something against your brother, you’ve an obligation to seek reconciliation before approaching the altar. I doubt if I’m the only person who’s always understood it as saying the opposite of what it actually does – which is that the requirement to seek reconciliation is made of the person who’s caused the hurt not the person who’s been hurt.

The fourth observation – and this is a more general point, but a crucial one. It is that our feelings are neither good nor bad. Feelings of anger, hurt and hatred, and all those other negative feelings which can cause to think we’ll never be able to forgive somebody – are never sinful. We can’t help our feelings – they’re us, we have no choice about them. And morality is only about intentions and actions. That’s not to say we ignore our negative feelings; on the contrary, they have to be recognised and ‘addressed’ so they do not control us and lead us into sinful intentions and actions. But they are NEVER wrong or sinful in themselves.

This is so important to understand: many people suffer guilt because of their negative feelings, and also sometimes because they feel they’ll never be able to forgive somebody who’s hurt them badly. Often they think: ‘if I feel like this, I must be a bad person….’ – which can easily lead into ‘..so I might as well behave badly.’ No – we might long to be free of our negative feelings but we have rather to remember two truths: there is no moral culpability in these feelings; and that even powerful negative feelings can and often do very gradually change and diminish.

The fifth observation: when we approach the subject of forgiveness, we need to distinguish between widely contrasting situations.

I name four:
a situation where something has happened, and the person responsible is sorry for the hurt they have caused
a situation where something has happened, but the person responsible is not aware of the hurt they have caused
a situation where something has happened, but the person responsible is not sorry for the hurt they have caused
a situation where the ‘offence’ is ongoing – is continuing to happen.

And, as well as seeking to make these and other distinctions, we must also take account of the differing levels of hurt involved. As a consequence, although the response invited of us in the first of these four situations might seem comparatively straightforward, that certainly does not mean it is always easy. We need to remember that while forgiveness might well be asked of us by Jesus – depending on the nature of what has happened, it might not be possible for us quite yet…more time might need to elapse before we are able to begin the process of forgiving.

Furthermore, the other three situations are ones in which forgiveness is not necessarily what’s asked of us at this stage. We’re not required to be passive: we have a right to make the person aware of the harm and hurt they’ve caused and, if it’s ongoing, to challenge them to stop what they’re doing or failing to do; and we have a right to seek an apology. However, we also have a responsibility to listen to their response to our challenge, if they wish to make one, and so to learn their perception of the situation.

Anger, in this kind of context, is often both necessary and good, as Jesus himself illustrated. The emotion and energy within us needs to find expression outwards, otherwise it will be end up turned inwards on oneself and emerge as depression.

At other times, expressing anger will not be wise or possible. Another alternative might then be separation – indeed there are often situations when all we can do is to try and distance ourselves from the source of our hurt.

Yes, Jesus asked us to forgive – but he also declared ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice’. The balance between the emphasis placed on the greater importance of one or other of these injunctions can sometimes be a generational thing – at least that has been my own experience. There has been a situation recently in my own life in which I have felt I must fight for justice – something my devoted parents find very hard to accept. Their line tends normally to be – ‘you must forgive x’. What they say might well be accurate, but not, I am convinced, at the expense of fighting at the moment for a recognition of what I see as the truth. (At the same time, while I battle on, I acknowledge I need to be aware of the temptations of obsession and hatred that can so easily build up in such a situation.)

The sixth and final observation: I’ve always been struck when it’s been pointed out that when we do not forgive someone – or are not yet able to forgive them – they retain a power over us. Quite apart from the demands of the gospel, forgiving the other is so often very good for one’s own psychological health – as perhaps one should expect from an injunction of Jesus! Yet we also frequently need to be patient with ourself: perhaps all we can manage at the moment is to want to forgive, or to want to want to forgive. Indeed, as Jean Vanier has eloquently argued, we can sometimes find ourselves in a position where we can only make what he views as the first step on the road to complete forgiveness – that of no longer wishing vengeance on the other. There is a story he tells of talking to someone in a prison who’d been convicted on false evidence. When he asked her if she was able to forgive the man responsible, she cried out ‘No, I’ll never be able to forgive him. But each day I pray that God will be able to’. That woman, he stated, was well down the road of forgiveness, even if she wasn’t aware of it.

This road to forgiveness is often a long road. It can take a lifetime for our feelings to catch up with what normally begins as a decision of one’s will. And frequently, we will not be able to manage to forgive someone solely through our own efforts: we need to ask the Holy Spirit’s help; and we need to pray for each other that we can let go of what we need to let go of.

While preparing this, one other thought has come to mind: I am a celibate priest who lives by myself. Over time, I have become aware that those of us who live like this are probably especially bad at holding grudges and failing to forgive. We don’t face the challenge every day in that area that those of you who live as married couples and in families face – a challenge to which so many of you bravely and triumphantly respond. It’s important and good to recognise that there is a lot of forgiving going on quietly and fruitfully each day.

From all I have already said, it will have become clear that my own evolving views about forgiveness are now probably closer to the thoughts of the Anglican priest, Michael Lapsley, than to the sentiments expressed in today’s ‘Thought for the Day’. But what about Our Lady and St Bernadette? Wouldn’t they be in the opposite camp? Well, remember we believe that Our Lady of Lourdes is the same Mary as the Mary of the Magnificat in St Luke’s Gospel, who declares with conviction:

He puts forth his arm in strength
And scatters the proud-hearted
He casts forth the mighty from their thrones
And raises the lowly

And Bernadette, all four foot six of her, was nothing if not determined, someone who always fought for what she believed to be right.

So, briefly to try to summarise some of what I’ve attempted to say: never tell someone that they must forgive; your negative feelings are never culpable in themselves, and never therefore a cause for guilt; the fight for justice (and for the righting of the situation and an apology) is often part of the ‘process’ of forgiveness. And always remember that Jesus’ teaching – that ultimately forgiveness not vengeance or retribution is the way forward – might seem to some people in our world like ‘foolishness’ and ‘weakness’, but is actually real wisdom, real strength, as Nelson Mandela has so vividly illustrated.

Let’s never forget that forgiving others is seldom cheap and easy, indeed much more likely as Michael Lapsley said – to be ‘costly, painful and difficult’; but let’s also pray quietly now – and in the days to come – that we might manage to seek to forgive those who’ve hurt us, and so in time be enabled to experience the wonderful freedom of the children of God……