Can we forgive someone who doesn’t accept our forgiveness? Or someone who doesn’t think he needs it? There was a group of us discussing this question recently, in reference to all that has happened in the past few years, as people try to re-forge old friendships. But the question goes far beyond all that, into the realm of deeper iniquities, to the very limits of God’s own forgiveness.
We may think of forgiveness as an act of love, which is to say, charity or agape, the love that wills the good of the other, as Thomas puts it (cf., II-II, q.23, a.1). This is not a transient, emotive affectivity, far less a transient eroticism, which, as John Paul II said, so often ‘fades wretchedly away’, but a firm, constant and resolute act of the will.
Thomas goes further: the virtue of charity ideally exists as a kind of friendship – again, not the boon companion, where the fun never stops so long as you’re buying. Rather, amicitia is a mutual benevolence, a reciprocal ‘willing the good’ of each other through thick and thin, to the very edge of doom. One-way friendship does not really fulfil the full nature of friendship (ibid.).
Certainly, we can love others who do not love us, or, those we do not even know, for it is always possible, one day, for them to return that love, and we can ‘will their good’ in the meantime. Our charity, like our friendship, exists, as Aristotle would say, in potentia – in a kind of potency, which one day may exist fully in act.
So too, forgiveness which, to be complete, must also be reciprocal and mutual. Often, there are two sides to a wrong, even if one be more wronged than another, and we must forgive each other. If the wrong is only one-sided, then at the very least, the forgiveness must be accepted to be complete.
‘Complete’ here means achieving a state called ‘reconciliation’, wherein one’s forgiveness is received and acknowledged. Justice and, hopefully, good-will and friendship are restored.
But there is one more element required, and that is repentance – for the other must be contrite for the wrong committed, followed by some attempt to make amends. Without such, forgiveness bears no fruit, and reconciliation a Potemkin façade.
There are various reasons why forgiveness may not be accepted, and reconciliation unfulfilled. We can summarize them as four groups:
First, there are those who think they did nothing wrong, their conscience assured that they are in the right. There are cases where the ‘wrong’ may be debatable and uncertain. Even so, it often does one good to seek and accept forgiveness, or at least understanding, even for a perceived wrong. Then again, sometimes the ‘wrong’ is actually a ‘right’, as when Anglican minister and author Ronald Knox in 1917 converted to Catholicism, shaming his father, who happened to be the Anglican Archbishop of Manchester, and who cut his son out of his will and, we may presume, his life. Tough, and no apology required except, perhaps, in the sense of a reasoned defense.
Second, there are those too ashamed to ask for forgiveness. Oftentimes, in such cases, if forgiveness is explicitly offered – as Pope John Paul II did to his would-be assassin – it is accepted. Not always, and we may be rebuffed, but it is certainly good for the soul of the one bestowing mercy, or ready to do so. The open door and the anonymity of the confessional are means of circumventing such shame.
Third, there are those whose wills are too weak, and they are too attached to their sin. For whatever reason, grace, and forgiveness have yet to be active in their souls. As Saint Augustine cried out, ‘Lord, grant me continence…but not yet!’. The delights of the non-marital bed were a bit too much for the lusty young Gus, but we may all say a prayer of gratitude that his mother’s prayers, grace and God’s forgiveness finally took effect in his soul, after which the great bishop and doctor sublimated all that passionate energy to the good. And what energy it was – one can scarcely read everything he said and wrote, never mind compose it oneself.
Fourth, there are those hardened in sin, who call evil, good, and good, evil, and whose conscience is seared. We enter here into the realm of the demonic, and a prelude to hell. As Pope Pius XII said in a radio address in October of 1946, in the wake of the horrors of the War, ‘perhaps the greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin‘. Even God cannot forgive the unrepentant heart. As Christ warns, the only sin that cannot be forgiven is the ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’, the refusal to seek forgiveness, to stay forever in the state of ‘self-exclusion from the company of God and the blessed’ we call hell, where one is past repentance. The Pope’s recent musings on hell being empty do not square with the warnings of Christ about final impenitence. The eternal loss of souls – and our own souls – is real possibility.
For those still living in the ‘hinge of the flesh’, as Tertullian put it, there is always the hope of repentance, necessary for salvation, right to the very last breath – Saint Dysmas! Forgiveness can still bear fruit, even in articulo mortis. God loves each of always, unchangeably so, always ready to bestow His mercy and forgiveness, and, as we pray in the prayer He taught us, we should do the same. This may be the work of years or decades – the seeds of grace mature in God’s good time, and will only come about if we become the ‘good earth’ that allows His grace to take root.
Maria Goretti forgave her murderer and would-be rapist Alessandro Serenelli with her dying breath, and it was only after decades in prison that he repented, begging forgiveness of Maria’s mother upon his release, and spending what remained of his life as a Capuchin lay brother, in prayer and penance. Rudolf Hess, the commandant of Auschwitz, converted just days before his execution, his confession heard by a Jesuit whose relatives Hess had put to death. Hess went to the gallows, shriven and forgiven. We may trust that the prayers of Maximilian Kolbe – martyred in the same camp, along with the countless unnamed saints in that crucible of suffering – had something to do with the grace Hess was given, and to which he responded. More recently, I came across this testimony of a father in a courtroom, forgiving the murderer of his son, which is difficult to watch. His friend, who posted the blog, saw the father afterwards in a church across the road, weeping before the tabernacle. Only God knows the depths of such sorrow, its cost, and its eventual fruit.
While on lost sons, the prodigal is the parable of patient forgiveness, as the father waited and watched each day for his wayward child on the horizon. But the son had to realize, repent and return, before he could be reconciled. It would do no good for the prodigal to return still the prodigal. Christ ‘ate with tax collectors and sinners’ for the purpose of gaining their conversion, not to make them complacent in their evil.
The most perfect mode of this forgiveness is the sacrament of Confession, wherein we are reconciled with God, with our fellow man, and with ourselves. One can go into that wooden box (if one can still find one, and not the glassed-in ‘reconciliation rooms’ of so many ecclesiae modernae), recite one’s most grievous sins – even matter-of-factly – and walk out spiritually refreshed, one’s soul shining with the grace of God, of which Saint Therese Lisieux said there was ‘nothing more beautiful’.
For this to ‘work’, however, the penitent must show contrition, which includes a firm purpose of amendment, and perform whatever penance – or ‘satisfaction’ – is imposed. These are the ‘integral parts’ of the sacrament. If any one of them is missing, the confession is invalid, and the sin, guilt and punishment remain. But we should recall that God can forgive sins outside of the sacraments, which are for our benefit, not His. The first movement of a soul may be enough to gain salvation. God is always looking on the horizon – of which there is no limit – for our return.
We need not recount the wrongs that have been done in the past few years – the reader may make a list as well as I – much of it still unreconciled, there may well be more in the weeks and years ahead. We must resist evil, at least passively, and actively if need be. Sometimes love requires speaking, and defending, difficult truths. We’re not called to be patsies or doormats, nor let evil reign untrammeled and unhindered. Regardless of how we are called to act, we must in our hearts forgive our neighbours – the good, the bad and the ugly – hoping, even against hope, as Saint Paul says, that as many as possible may be reconciled in the truth, before it is too late.
A Practical Postscript:
For those whose families and friends are still divided, we should strive to get along as much as we might. There will be those so hardened in their falsity that nothing short of an unmitigated disaster will shake them out of it – the whole hitting rock bottom and all that. Reality is a hard, bitter, if often patient, teacher While we allow things take their course, we should at the same time not fear to defend the truth, suaviter et fortiter, but not force issues prematurely. Everything received is received according to the mode of the receiver – God prepares the heart, and the truth wins out in the end; it always does.
At the same time, keep your wits about you, with the support of people you can trust. This isn’t over yet, the battle will be unto the very end of time, and we must keep up the good fight of the Faith, for truth, for freedom – and for forgiveness.