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Part 7: Forgive Offenses

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The following is the last in a seven-part seven-part series on the spiritual works of mercy.

By Chris Sparks (Feb. 12. 2016)

Forgiving offenses gladly. It's one of the hardest of the works of mercy and one of the greatest challenges of being Christian. Yet it's also one of the most important, as shown by Pope Francis' emphasis on God's merciful forgiveness in Misericordiae Vultus (The Face of Mercy), his papal bull calling the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which began Dec. 8. But what is forgiveness, and how do we do it?

One way to understand forgiveness is to see it in action.

The Marian Helpers who attended the Third World Apostolic Congress on Mercy in August 2014 heard Colombians who had endured incredible acts of violence testify about forgiving the perpetrators. Marcela Murillo, a native Colombian and a longtime Marian Helper, found the testimonies uniquely powerful.

"One of the witnesses was named Pastora Mira Garcia," Marcela recalled. Pastora was from a small, poor town, constantly under attack by armed groups. Her father was murdered when she was just a girl.

At 18, she married and had a child. When her daughter was only 2 months old, tragedy struck again: Her husband was killed.

But the worst was yet to come.

Years later, her 22-year-old daughter was kidnapped. During nine months of captivity, this mother never ceased to search for her daughter. She eventually learned her daughter had been killed. Pastora then sought to find her remains. In her search, she found several bodies. Horrifying though it was, this gave her a degree of peace because she was then able to help other mothers who were looking for the remains of loved ones. At last, Pastora buried her daughter, but again her faith would be tested when her son was also kidnapped by a paramilitary group. After two weeks of suffering unimaginable tortures, her son's body was found on the side of the road.

"Pastora says that, despite her pain, she had a deep faith, and it was through faith that she could go on," Marcela continued.

A few days after the burial of her son, Pastora found a man who was badly hurt lying on the side of the road in the same place where her son had been found.

"Without hesitation, she took him home to tend his wounds," said Marcela. "When this man saw the pictures of her dead son, he said, 'Do you know this man? We killed him last week.' Pastora said she felt her world collapsing, but asked the Virgin Mary to cover her ears to the words of this man and not let her heart be filled with hate. Pastora begged the Mother of God to help her forgive those who killed her son. And so Pastora, with love and dedication, cared for the murderer of her child. She said that she loved this man so much that, several years later, when he was unfortunately killed, she felt it like the loss of a child."

Now, forgiveness isn't always as dramatic as Pastora's story. As C.S. Lewis put it in his Essay on Forgiveness, "It is perhaps not so hard to forgive a single great injury. But to forgive the incessant provocations of daily life — to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son — how can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night 'Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.' We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it is to refuse God's mercy for ourselves. There is no hint of exceptions and God means what He says."

To refuse to forgive others is to refuse God's mercy for ourselves. What a stark statement! But it's right there in Scripture (see Mt 6:14-15; see also Mt 18:21-35). In order to receive mercy, we must show mercy. In order to be forgiven, we must forgive. As Pope Francis indicates in Misericordiae Vultus, we become witnesses to the mercy of God if we are merciful people ourselves. Saint Faustina wrote, "We resemble God most when we forgive our neighbors" (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 1148).

To make the challenge a little easier, let's listen to the teaching of the Director of the Association of Marian Helpers, Fr. Chris Alar, MIC, on some myths about forgiveness, as well as the reality.

Myth 1: Forgiveness requires rebuilding the relationship.

In the dictionary and in life, forgiveness doesn't necessarily mean reconciliation.

reconcile (verb): to restore to friendship or harmony; to check (a financial account) against another for accuracy

In a relationship where one person won't accept that they wronged the other, you cannot have harmony. If, for instance, I know my friend thinks he did nothing wrong in spreading something I told him in confidence, I also know he will do it again, and I won't want to risk telling him my secrets again. Forgiveness depends upon "me;" reconciliation depends upon "us." While God requires me to unconditionally forgive the business partner who cheats me, he does not require that I stay in business with him.

Myth 2: Forgiveness means forgetting what happened.

We don't have to pretend we are not hurt. That is not forgiveness; that is lying. The human mind is amazing, but it does not have the ability to forget at will. Forgiveness is not denying the reality of our pain.

Myth 3: Forgiveness requires release from consequences.

Suppose I've just stolen $1,000 from you. I say, "I sincerely repent of my actions. I will never do it again. Please forgive me." Do I get to keep the $1,000 because I apologized? What is repentance worth if I keep the money? If I don't return what I stole, my supposed repentance is hollow and meaningless; I have no intention to turn from my previous behavior. When Zacchaeus repented of stealing from Jews by inflating their taxes, he offered to pay it back (see Lk 19:1-10). People can be forgiven and still have to pay for their crime — that's why God has many souls pass through purgatory before they can enter heaven. We have to face the consequences of breaking the law of the land or the law of God.

Myth 4: If they are not sorry, I should not forgive.

If someone stole from you and did not repent, they may not remain your friend. But should you forgive them? You certainly can't restore the relationship, but you can and should forgive. While repentance and remorse are necessary to receive forgiveness, they are not prerequisites for granting forgiveness. You are not likely to hear the person who jumped in front of you at the grocery store line repent, but you should still forgive them and move on.
Your repentance is necessary to receive God's forgiveness and restore our relationship with him. But their repentance is not necessary to grant forgiveness.

So let us imitate Pastora and ask for the Blessed Virgin Mary's intercession — that we may be faithful in forgiving and so open ourselves to receiving the mercy of God.

The spiritual works of mercy

Teach the ignorant
Pray for the living and the dead
Admonish sinners
Counsel those in doubt
Console the sorrowful
Bear wrongs patiently
Forgive offenses

We invite you to follow along with the series.

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