Imagine a society where forgiveness is so rare that virtually no one ranks it among the essentials of a life lived well and pursued with others. How harsh would a world lacking forgiveness and mercy feel?
In a world without forgiveness, unkept pledges of all kinds, white lies and boldface lies, unfortunate words hurled about in angry moments, avoidable misunderstandings and temporary failures to nurture close relationships could all put up dividing walls between people that are not temporary at all.
The wonder of forgiveness is that it can open a door to healing in some form. It is not that those who forgive also forget, Pope Francis remarked in his 2020 encyclical “Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship”). Instead, “they choose not to yield to the same destructive force that caused them so much suffering.”
Those who forgive, he wrote, choose not to spread “the spirit of revenge,” For, “revenge resolves nothing.”
Forgiveness is the focus of great attention in today’s church, partly because Pope Francis speaks of it so often. In his vision, an unforgiving world would not be God-like.
The Lord “looks into our eyes, looks at our heart” and sees “his sons and daughters.” But the Lord “does not look at labels” and “rejects exclusion.” That “is God’s approach,” Pope Francis said when he visited a Panamanian detention center for youth offenders in January 2019.
Pope Francis wanted the young people to hear that in the Gospel Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Lk 15:2). Jesus, the pope added, “invites us to change and to conversion.” That “is the Lord’s approach.”
Jesus draws “near to others” and gives them “another chance,” the pope explained. He frequently reaffirms the Christian belief that people are offered second chances, even when they may not see themselves as worthy of a second chance.
One of the Panamanian youths expressed remorse to Pope Francis for becoming estranged from part of his family, according to news reports. “I caused profound pain in a dear friend and in myself,” the young man added.
Would he and others like him find it hard to believe that God actually forgives people for their harmful words, betrayals or pain they have caused?
No one is unimportant in God’s eyes when it comes to forgiveness, the pope stressed in his homily for the 2021 Easter Vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica. God “tirelessly seeks out those who are discouraged” and “goes to the very peripheries of existence, since in his eyes no one is least, no one is excluded,” the pope said.
His Easter Vigil homily invited worshipers to believe that “it is always possible to begin anew, because there is always a new life that God can awaken in us.” This is true even when “you feel that all is lost,” he emphasized.
God’s forgiveness goes hand in hand with a second dimension of forgiveness that Pope Francis commonly highlights, namely our forgiveness of others. Notably, a petition in the Lord’s Prayer underscores each of these dimensions of forgiveness: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Indeed, his visit to the Panamanian youth detention center was an opportunity for Pope Francis not only to speak of God’s forgiveness, but to act in an affirming, life-giving way that might awaken hope in the youths. He said to them:
“You are part of [God’s] family; you have a lot to share with others. Help us to discern how best to live and accompany one another along the path of change that we, as a family, all need.”
A fruitful society, he said, “is able to generate processes of inclusion and integration, of caring and trying to create opportunities and alternatives that can offer new possibilities to the young, to build a future through community, education and employment. Such a community is healthy.”
Forgiveness and mercy are closely related, the pope made clear when he announced plans for the church’s 2015-2016 Jubilee Year of Mercy. “No one can place limits on the love of God, who is ever ready to forgive,” the pope wrote in “Misericordiae Vultus” (“The Face of Mercy “), laying out plans for the jubilee year.
“Pardoning offenses becomes the clearest expression of merciful love,” he added. For Christians, this “is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves.” Yet, at times, “how hard it seems to forgive,” even though letting go “of anger, wrath, violence and revenge are necessary conditions for living joyfully.”
Neither God’s forgiveness nor our forgiveness of others should be slighted. Pope Francis labors to communicate those twin Christian convictions. In announcing the Year of Mercy in 2015, he wrote:
“The mercy of God is his loving concern for each one of us. … He desires our well-being, and he wants to see us happy, full of joy and peaceful.” Furthermore, this “is the path” that Christians, by expressing merciful love for others, “must also travel.”
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Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.