Forgiveness — both seeking and offering it — is one of the great challenges of our Catholic faith. But it is also among its greatest treasures.
In some respects, forgiveness shouldn’t be that challenging, great though our need to seek or offer forgiveness may be. Look to the Old Testament reading for Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent, from Exodus (32:7-14), where we find God’s patience being tested yet again by the Israelites who, through Moses, he brought out of slavery in Egypt.
By now, God has heard more than enough of the Israelites’ grumbling. Now these “depraved” people have built a golden calf to worship in place of God — and that, God tells Moses, is the last straw; he is ready to give this “stiff-necked” people the ultimate heave-ho.
But Moses implores God not to do away with the Israelites, to instead recall his promise to Abraham, Isaac and Israel: that he would “make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky,” that he would give those descendants all the land he promised as their perpetual heritage.
“So the Lord relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.”
Other Scriptures in the Fourth Week of Lent speak to our need and desire for forgiveness, and God’s promise of a better life.
On Monday, God — through the prophet Isaiah (65: 17-18) — says, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth. The things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind. Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create.”
And on Tuesday, the psalmist asks, “A clean heart create for me, O God; give me back the joy of your salvation” (Ps 51:12, 14).
If God can forgive, why can’t we? Our faith teaches us that everyone — even the depraved and the stiff-necked among us — can ask for and receive forgiveness through the sacrament of reconciliation.
“There is no offense, however serious, that the church cannot forgive,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 982). “There is no one, however wicked and guilty, who may not confidently hope for forgiveness.”
Provided, the catechism quickly adds, the person’s “repentance is honest.” We must be sincere in our desire not just to be forgiven but to change our ways for the better — to “go, and from now on do not sin any more,” as Jesus (Jn 8: 11) told the adulterous woman he saved from stoning by confronting the would-be stone-throwers with the realization that they had their own sins on which to reflect.
Looking into our own house, as it were, is another aspect of forgiveness worth exploring in this season of Lent, a season in which we (hopefully) seek to change our lives for the better. That aspect is addressed quite clearly in the Our Father that we pray every Sunday:
“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”
Recall the story of the wicked servant, who pleaded with his master, to whom he owed money, to forgive him (Mt 18:23-35). The master did so, whereupon the servant turned right around and imprisoned his own servant who owed him.
Clearly, the importance of forgiveness was lost on this wicked servant, who quickly incurred the wrath of his master, as should any of us who similarly refuse to “do to others” as was done to us.
Sunday Mass, in fact, offers us several reminders on the importance of forgiveness:
— The penitential rite, in which we confess “to almighty God” and one another our sins of commission and omission; we ask blessed Mary, the angels and saints, and those assembled for prayers on our behalf; and we pray, “May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.”
— The Apostles’ Creed (especially during Lent), in which we proclaim our belief in not only Father, Son, Holy Spirit and church, but also in “the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”
— And, as mentioned, the Our Father, praying — shortly before offering one another the sign of peace and receiving the Eucharist — that we may be forgiven, and that we may forgive others.
Forgiveness is love, as Pope Francis declared in his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” when he refers to “the Christian ideal” as “a love that never gives up” (No. 119).
Such love embraces forgiveness, as God offers his people throughout the Scriptures. Recall the Easter Vigil’s seventh reading, in which God, speaking to the house of Israel that has profaned his holy name, promises them new hearts, a new spirit and a new beginning: “You shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ez 36:28).
And it is certainly what Jesus offers when, crucified on the cross at Calvary, he cries out, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). It’s this kind of unconditional and never-ending love that we seek — and which we are called to offer.
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Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.