Freedom in Forgiveness

“Jesus said to his disciples,
“Things that cause sin will inevitably occur,
but woe to the one through whom they occur.
It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck
and he be thrown into the sea
than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.
Be on your guard!
If your brother sins, rebuke him;
and if he repents, forgive him.
And if he wrongs you seven times in one day
and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’
you should forgive him.”
And the Apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (Luke 17:1-6)

“Have you forgiven him yet?” my friend asked as we sat in the driveway of my parents’ house, heat running in the car on a cold December night.

Her words pierced my heart. “Oh…” I said, “I thought I did. But I don’t think I actually meant it with my whole heart.”

Forgiveness—it’s sometimes so hard for us, yet always so easy for Jesus. See, I used to think that forgiveness meant I was saying it was okay that someone hurt me. It wasn’t until I was deeply wounded by another several years ago that I figured out what forgiveness was all about. I remember hearing someone say the words forgiveness and freedom in the same sentence. My gut reaction was, “I want that…is that really possible?”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls us to forgive, even if the same person hurts us seven times in one day. Forgiveness isn’t saying that someone else’s sin against you is okay—forgiveness says, “What you did hurt me, but I put you in God’s hands. I do not desire your destruction.” Forgiveness is surrender, casting our cares on the One who cares so deeply for us.

Forgiveness in graver matters takes time and is a journey, and that is okay. With the situation I mentioned above, I would kneel and say the words “I forgive_____” and pray a Hail Mary for the person every Sunday before Mass until I started to believe it in my heart.

Forgiveness softens our hearts; holding onto unforgiveness leaves us bitter, angry, and unhealed with walls around our hearts screaming, “DON’T come in!” Forgiveness frees; unforgiveness enslaves. We become chained to our hurt. If we don’t forgive, we may as well put a millstone around our own necks. Is there someone in your life you need to work on forgiving?

I find it fascinating that the Apostles’ response to Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness was, “Increase our faith.” Their hearts were pierced like when my friend invited me to truly forgive. I imagine them seeing the faces of the people they knew they needed to forgive flash before their eyes as Jesus was talking.

And how often do we struggle to forgive ourselves? I know I do sometimes. I’ve walked out of the confessional before only to beat myself up about my sin a few hours later. The liar of shame creeps in and tells us our sin defines us and that we’re not good.

When St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (the saint to whom Jesus encouraged devotion to His Sacred Heart) began having visions of Jesus, her spiritual director, St. Claude, was very skeptical at first. He told her to ask Jesus what the last mortal sin was that he confessed. Jesus answered, “I don’t remember.” How powerful is the ocean of mercy of our Lord!

Father, increase my faith so that I may more easily forgive others. Strengthen me to be courageous and put the people that have wronged me and wounded me into Your wounded hands. So often others’ own woundedness leads them to hurt me; help me to have an understanding heart towards that. Increase my faith so that I may better forgive myself. Help me to know that I am not defined by my sin but as Your precious child. Help me to forgive like You do, Lord Jesus, and set me free. Remove any shame, fear, hard-heartedness, or bitterness from my heart. May I have great faith in Your mercy, Your love song for Your people.

Lamentation

Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you when you were young;
I will set up an everlasting covenant with you,
that you may remember and be covered with confusion,
and that you may be utterly silenced for shame
when I pardon you for all you have done, says the Lord GOD.
—Ezekiel 16:60–63

Today’s reading from Ezekiel reminds me of a recent video from Fr. Robert Barron, which is definitely worth a watch: Bishop Barron on Ezekiel and the Sex Abuse Crisis. Ezekiel wrote of the corruption within the holy city of Jerusalem and its cleansing through avengers from the North. Today, the “holy city” of the Church has fallen into corruption, and it too needs to be cleansed, to endure the painful siege of repentance. God will not abandon His covenant with us. But if we are to be cleansed, we must allow Him to show us the weight of our sin; we must be willing to feel our shame and sorrow.

As Aidan and Alyssa have written this week, it has been sobering to read reports of the horrific abuse that has occurred within the Church and the deep corruption that kept it hidden for years. As American Catholics, we are mourning over these unthinkable crimes and trying to figure out how we can possibly move forward through this mess.

Yesterday’s Gospel reading, which Alyssa reflected upon, spoke of forgiveness, which may seem untimely at the moment. The Gospel asks us to forgive, but often we don’t understand the meaning of true forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean making excuses for the person who wronged you or brushing it under the rug. That’s not forgiveness; it’s denial. True forgiveness must acknowledge the sin and yet refuse to feed it. A person who forgives renounces any claim toward revenge and resists the tendency to harbor resentment. It is a daily decision, and it is not an easy one. But it is the only way that we can stop the cycle of sin and open our hearts to mercy. A truly forgiving heart is not indifferent to injustice; it is all the more deeply hurt by it, since it refuses to dehumanize either the victim or the perpetrator. It sees the tragedy of an innocent life altered irrevocably; it sees those individuals who used their God-given will for evil. And it resolves to do better.

I am reminded of the story of St. Maria Goretti and her murderer/attempted rapist, Alessandro Serenelli. Now, this is not a typical story—we should not go around assuming that all murderers and rapists will be reformed by our prayers and can be later welcomed into our families. But it is in fact what happened in the case of Alessandro Serenelli, incredible though it may seem. Though Alessandro was bitterly unrepentant for the first few years after Maria’s death, he experienced a profound conversion of heart after experiencing a vision of Maria in which she forgave him. He was moved to weep for his sins for the first time, and he began the process of true repentance. Due to Maria’s miraculous intercession (again, possible only through the grace of God and not by human means), he was completely reformed and eventually became an adopted son of Maria’s mother.

While Alessandro clung to his pride and callously denied his guilt, the seeds of sin and evil continued to fester within him. Only when he realized the depth of his sin and entered into a living purgatory of shame and regret was his heart opened to receive God’s mercy. This step was crucial: acknowledgment of wrongdoing, grief over what has been tainted and destroyed, ownership of one’s sinfulness. Unless we confront the realities of our sins and face our deepest wounds, we will never be able to receive healing. And Alessandro’s revelation of guilt—and thus his pathway to forgiveness—was made possible because of Maria’s purity and steadfast prayer.

As faithful Catholics who are shocked, saddened, and heartbroken over the recent scandals within the heart of our Church, we are called to step up and be the solution, to challenge the Church to rise up to her sacred calling. Now is the time for prayer and fasting. We will expect from the Church a higher standard, and we will start by being saints. The purification of the Church will begin with the purification of our own souls, by a deep desire for holiness and purity throughout every aspect of our lives. Jesus and Mary weep alongside us at these crimes. I’ve been encouraged by the discussion among young, faithful Catholics of the many ways in which we can carry this out, and I’ve compiled a list of resources here.

I stay with the Church because her teachings proclaim the dignity of the human person, even as some of those who represent her have trampled upon human dignity through objectification and abuse. I pray that we allow the light of truth to overcome the darkness, so that everything hidden will be exposed to the light. The truth of our own dignity and worth—and indeed that of our children—must prevail against the shadows.

Unpayable Debts

Dear fellow pilgrims,

Honestly, I think the last thing I wanted to talk about today in my reflection was forgiveness, in light of the horrific news that has surfaced out of Pennsylvania.  Members of our own beloved Catholic Church have perpetuated sexual abuse from hundreds of priests against hundreds, if not thousands, of children, and this is only a thorough report from one state in one country.  Even just over the course of a few days I have said repeatedly in my mind, and discussed with friends: “Now is not the time to defend the Church. Now is the time for sackcloths and ashes, fasting, mourning, listening to victims’ stories. Now is the time for confession, not changing the subject.”  We should all be outraged and be demanding further investigations and transparency above any trying to “save face.”

But today, the Holy Spirit, through our Church, is reminding us that even though we are just beginning to realize how thick and dark this pit of sin actually goes in the hierarchical systems of the Church, it is no match for Jesus’ mercy and plan for forgiveness among His people.

In today’s Gospel, we are called by our Lord to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven (which really means an infinite number of times). Our first pope, St. Peter, asked Christ, almost like a child… “So, seven times… that’s enough forgiveness, right?” But when Christ answered, I bet St. Peter gave quite a look: wide-eyed, silent, mouth agape, while not realizing that Christ was showing him even the deepest sins of betrayal he would commit would be completely forgiven.

However, the simplistic point here that I could make – that even priests who perpetrate unspeakable terrors to children can be forgiven – is not what I want to highlight. (This is important to think about, but I honestly don’t think I’m ready to muse about that at length in an open forum quite yet.) Rather, what I see that I want to communicate here are possible inner dynamics within the individual who has the un-payable debt that led him to immediately demand a debt be paid to him from a fellow servant.

Maybe the servant with the un-payable debt did not actually see or understand that he was forgiven of his debt. Maybe he was just so worried about his own well-being and so relieved when he was let off the hook that the thrill of being set free gave him this false sense of favoritism and superiority over other servants. Maybe his actions immediately post-forgiveness showed a glimpse into the kind of person who could accumulate such a large, un-payable debt.  Maybe somehow the extreme forgiveness shown to him actually made him think he was more like the one who forgave him than the one who desperately needed forgiveness. The servant forgot that he was a servant dealing with other servants, and even more so, a servant with a much deeper debt than others he preyed on; he was blind to his own condition, he thought he was the ultimate authority.

In light of that, I think these are key elements of true forgiveness and consequent repentance: truly knowing what it is that is being forgiven, truly knowing who you are as one who is forgiven, and truly knowing who is it Who is forgiving the debt.

Some of the most powerful news stories that have come out of tragedies, in my view, have been those of victims forgiving those who have wronged them or others close to them. Nadine Collier forgave Dylann Roof publicly after he killed her mother and eight other church members and then showed no remorse, even pride afterwards: “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.” Rachel Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar, also forgave him publicly for sexually abusing her repeatedly “under the guise of medical treatment” when she was a teenager: “I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well…”.  These stories of victims sharing their stories and forgiving their abusers do not only work for justice for the victims, they seem as if they are also aimed at offering mercy for the abusers. These statements, occurring within the processes of seeking legal justice for the victims, are giving the abusers the opportunity to know just what it is they are being forgiven for; there is no doubt that they are sinners in desperate need of forgiveness.

And here is where this connects to our current situation, my dear friends: without justice and confronting the weight of sin, there can be no true mercy. These were critical aspects of the Cross, from which all mercy flows! When these hundreds of abusers and the systems that perpetually condoned abusers were not confronted with the legal, public justice system, the abuse, the sin, continued. And this is true on a much smaller scale, as well. When we hide sins, we cannot be forgiven for them. When we do not have contrite hearts, we are not fully forgiven (theologians, feel free to correct me on that if I am off). And, when we do not understand the depths of our sin, or at least seek to, we are much less likely to forgive others because of that ignorance.

Let us pray for justice and mercy to come to all those involved in these scandals, including those priests who perpetrated unspeakable abuse in their lifetime but are now deceased. For we are all servants with unpayable debts, and Christ has told us to have “pity on [our] fellow servants.” Let us pray for our Church, that she would no longer keep justice and healing away from those victims who need it the most. Lord, have mercy on us all. Lord, purify and clean our Church, Your Church.

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

Maria Goretti, Pier Giorgio Frassati, and Freedom

This week we celebrate the feasts of two great saints. July 4 was the feast of our patron, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, and today, July 6, is the feast of St. Maria Goretti, the Little Saint of Great Mercy. During this week as we reflect upon the meaning of freedom, we can look to these saints as examples of what true freedom really looks like. It may seem counterintuitive, based on our culture’s idea of freedom, to say that these two young people who closely followed the precepts of the Church and died before they were ever able to “achieve” anything of significance were paradigms of freedom. And yet their actions in the most crucial moments of their lives demonstrate how free they truly were.

Maria Goretti shows us the freedom that comes from forgiveness. Brutally murdered at the tender age of eleven after resisting attempted rape, she would have had every reason to feel an intense, righteous anger toward her attacker, Alessandro Serenelli. However, as she lay dying from fourteen stab wounds, she expressed nothing but concern for Alessandro’s soul, uttering words of forgiveness. She refused to harbor the venom of unforgiveness, even for an instant; she would allow it to poison neither her own soul nor Alessandro’s. While she acknowledged the weight of his grave sin, she didn’t brood over the damage that had been done or seek revenge. Instead, she let go of that burden and put it all in God’s hands.

Would Maria have been “exerting her freedom” if she had given in to feelings of outrage and resentment? Or would the weight of her anger have kept her from being truly free? No one would have blamed Maria if she had been unable to forgive this man, whose evil actions led to her excruciating death and ultimately tore apart her family. But she not only forgave him; she desired his conversion, saying that she wanted him with her in Heaven. She appeared to him after her death, expressing her mercy toward him. And Alessandro, who had been utterly unrepentant and vicious even in his imprisonment, was converted overnight—a miracle whose impact would play out over the course of his lifetime. This was possible only because of Maria’s interior freedom, her ability to resist the influence of all that would lead her astray and follow the voice of God.

Maria held fast to virtue even at the cost of her life, knowing that the joys and sufferings of this world are fleeting, that what truly mattered was preparing her eternal soul for Heaven—as well as Alessandro’s soul. She desired Heaven not just for herself, but for everyone, even sinners, even the very man who brutally murdered her. Even when he was at his very worst, she still understood that he was a human being, a child of God, meant for a life much greater than the one he was living. Not only that, she still believed there was hope for him, because she trusted in the boundless mercy of God.

Like Maria Goretti, Pier Giorgio Frassati was not swayed by the voices that tried to separate him from God. Even as he was surrounded by the noise of the world, he was firmly rooted in his faith and confident in doing what was right. He was willing to go against the current, championing political views that aligned with his deeply felt understanding of human dignity—unpopular though they were. Amid pressure to achieve success, wealth, and prestige, Pier Giorgio was unfazed, keeping his focus on God alone. Free from the expectations of others and from the fear of what consequences may result from doing what was right, he followed God’s call to serve the poor and galvanize Catholic young adults.

Pier Giorgio Frassati was born about eight hours north of where Maria Goretti was living in Italy, just fifteen months before her death. They overlapped on this earth for a brief period of time. Both died young, Pier Giorgio at 24 and Maria at just 11. Both suffered painful deaths without complaint—though Maria’s was certainly more traumatic and earned her the crown of martyrdom. But most importantly, both acted with tremendous interior freedom, resisting those who would keep them from becoming who God created them to be: His instruments in this world.

There are two types of interior slavery: the chains and pains of sin or the will of God. One is a slavery in which your will is in danger of being circumscribed; the other is where your will is given the necessary grace to act in accord with what is good and believe what is true. Pier Giorgio’s witness testifies that while the world might smack you around, your soul is a living dynamism that, when infused with the freedom of the love of God in Christ, no one can hold back. I believe Pier Giorgio sums up the feeling of true freedom when he said, “Our life, in order to be Christian, has to be a continual renunciation, a continual sacrifice. But this is not difficult, if one thinks what these few years passed in suffering are, compared with eternal happiness where joy will have no measure or end, and where we shall have unimaginable peace.”
Jared Zimmerer, “Pier Giorgio Frassati as a Model of Freedom”

The God of Second Chances

After Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples and eaten breakfast with them,
he said to Simon Peter,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He then said to Simon Peter a second time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time,
“Do you love me?” and he said to him,
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
—John 21:15–17

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Sorrow_of_Saint_Peter_(La_douleur_de_Saint_Pierre)_-_James_TissotA few weeks earlier, Peter had stood outside the courtyard of the high priest, weeping bitterly. He had disowned Jesus not once, not twice, but three times, just as Jesus had predicted. Peter was filled with grief when he realized what he had done: despite the fact that he had vowed to stand by Jesus in every possible trial, despite his complete devotion, he had buckled at the first bit of pressure and cast aside the One who meant everything to him.

We might imagine that we would defend our faith in any circumstance, but when those situations actually arise, often our discomfort leads us to hide our true colors and pretend that we are just another face in the crowd, not a follower of Christ. There’s a fine line between trying not to force our faith upon others and hiding it altogether, and it can be all too easy amid a secular environment to act as though we are ashamed of our relationship with Jesus.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Saint_Peter_Walks_on_the_Sea_(Saint_Pierre_marche_sur_la_mer)_-_James_Tissot_-_overallYes, there will be consequences for defending Christ. But there are worse consequences for denying Him. We can’t allow the possible reactions of others to distance us from the Source of all joy and love, as though their approval were the real key to our happiness. And in fact, we might be surprised at others’ openness to our faith—it might end up being a point of connection between us.

Chances are, at one point or another we’re going to mess this up. We’re going to drop the ball when presented with opportunities to witness to our faith, and we’re going to hide our light under a bushel basket out of fear. But Peter shows us that this, too, can be a path to grace. When we realize our shortcomings and failures, we can follow the way of Peter, the way of humility. We can begin to understand that we will never be able to carry out our grandiose plans on our own, that we are truly dependent upon Jesus for everything.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Meal_of_Our_Lord_and_the_Apostles_(Repas_de_Notre-Seigneur_et_des_apôtres)_-_James_TissotOur God is a God of second chances. How tender Jesus was to Peter, to grant him this moment: He set the scene over again, with a charcoal fire burning just as there was in the courtyard of the high priest, and asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And three times, Peter was able to reply, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He was given a second chance, a do-over of the worst mistake he’d ever made. Jesus saw Peter’s sorrow and contrition, and in His mercy He stepped in to restore the relationship. Not only that, but He entrusted the Church to Peter as the first pope. He cast Peter’s sins as far as the east is from the west, giving him a fresh start. He does this for us, too. No matter how badly we’ve messed up, he will give us another chance if we’re willing to try again—and, this time, to call upon His help to guide us.


1. James Tissot, The Sorrow of Saint Peter / PD-US
2. James Tissot, Saint Peter Walks on the Sea / PD-US
3. James Tissot, Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles / PD-US

Close

For what great nation is there
that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us
whenever we call upon him?
– Deuteronomy 4:7

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
– Matthew 5:17

Sisters and brothers, in this season of repentance, I pray that we also take a moment to reflect on the Eucharist so that, upon receiving forgiveness, we sprint to receive Jesus’ body and blood with new eyes and refreshed hearts.

Today’s readings remind us of Jesus desire to be in a state of intimate relationship with us. He calls for repentance, yes, but not as king demanding a show of loyalty and obedience, but as a friend who misses us. The Israelites found cause to praise the Lord for His closeness even during their 40 years in the desert. The Lord had just given them His commandments, and they saw them as a sign of His closeness.

How much closer is the Lord now?! We have the Eucharist! We are temples of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us! If the Israelites could give thanks for God’s closeness, how much more we ought to express our gratitude!

Say a prayer of thanksgiving today for the Lord’s closeness. Go to Confession. And then sprint to receive Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament at the foot of the altar as often as you can from now until Easter.