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.