Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Elusive Spirit of Forgiveness

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 01, 2024

A world-weary practicing Catholic who suffered the slings and arrows that come with living a long life once remarked, “The trouble with Christianity is that you must forgive too many enemies.” As we age, it is unnerving to admit honestly, “Show me the man, and I’ll tell you what I don’t like about him.” The spirit of Christian forgiveness is mysterious and elusive.

At every Mass, we pray before receiving Communion, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The petition reinforces Jesus’ entire teaching on forgiveness. “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Mt. 5:23-24)

In the parable of the Unforgiving Servant, the master cancels the servant’s debt, but the servant refuses to forgive a fellow servant: “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Mt. 18:32-33) Even the apostles struggled with the duty to forgive. “Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.’” (Mt. 18: 21-22)

The command to forgive extends to our enemies. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 5:43-45) Yet, the spirit of forgiveness is elusive. Consider a simple mental exercise. 1) List the top five grievances of your life; 2) List five – or two or three—conscious acts of you granting forgiveness. Which of the two is easier?

Identifying grievances and the culprits is easy. If the offenses are objectively unjust, there is no harm with just anger, provided we control our reaction with reason. Jesus used just anger to cleanse the Temple. St. Paul acknowledges just and proportionate anger: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Eph. 4:26)

Anger is the most volatile of emotions and, hence, the most easily abused. So we tend to respond disproportionately, lashing out in anger rather than with a controlled rebuke. But if we deny just anger with unhealthy denial and repression, we face the danger of sublimating grievances, cultivating grudges, and seeking opportunities for revenge. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Rom. 12:19)

The American Civil War is intriguing because, as with all civil wars, brothers fought brothers. A continuing mystery is the depth of hatred between warring parties among previously good friends. The many accounts of the battle engagements between friends and foes alike are almost too painful to read.

In 1938, Civil War veterans on both sides met at Gettysburg for the 75th Anniversary of the famous battle. During the re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge, the old Confederates shouted their rebel yell. The grand finale was not hatred but a touching expression of reconciliation. It is a terrible mistake to overlook the forgiveness that comes with time and choose to stir up old grievances. Time reduces the fires of hatred to glowing embers. Friendship, affection, and forgiveness help extinguish those dangerous glowing ashes.

There is no harm in recognizing the value of the adage: time heals all wounds. If we honestly assess our relationships, it is more likely our enemies and our grievances fade into irrelevance rather than canceling transgressions with acts of forgiveness. Many today are cynically awakening ancient hatreds rooted in legitimate historical grievances. Forgiving enemies will never be part of the modern Woke DEI religion.

The great British writer Evelyn Waugh, author of Brideshead Revisited, was a convert to the Catholic faith. Waugh’s marriage and friendships were tumultuous. When a bitter adversary wrote to beg his forgiveness, Waugh curtly responded by postcard with only four letters: “O.K, E.W.” The spirit of forgiveness begins with even the briefest acknowledgments of goodwill.

We may not want to admit it, but even a spouse can become an enemy. Implicit in wedding vows is the promise of continuing mutual forgiveness. A family that prays the "Our Father" together stays together.

Yet the makeup of every act of forgiveness is elusive. The passage of time helps. The struggle to dismiss grudges requires the same resolve we use in dismissing impure thoughts. Even the study of peace treaties between warring nations helps us to understand mutual forgiveness— but only to a point. We cannot demand unconditional surrender from our spouses, family members, friends, co-workers – our enemies. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.” (Jn. 8:7)

Do we grant forgiveness only when we receive an apology or a request for forgiveness? Does forgiveness require that we pretend that evil behavior has no consequences? Do I cultivate a disposition to forgive? Do I realize that even imperfect reconciliation is better than the bitterness of conflict, provided my adversaries do not ask me to condone evil?

It is impossible to love and forgive without God’s grace. Our hardened hearts must be open to His love because we are not the author of love. “This is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.” (1 Jn. 4:10) Our obligation to forgive sins is elusive, so we must take refuge in Jesus on the Cross, making His words our own: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Lk. 23:24) Neither do we.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: winnie - Apr. 02, 2024 12:10 PM ET USA

    Thanks for these wise words, Father & for sharing Evelyn Waugh’s unintentionally humorous response to a heartfelt apology.