Last week, during the Easter break, I was fortunate enough to make it into a movie theater in North Myrtle Beach to see the acclaimed movie, Father Stu. While other theaters may have been nearly empty, this one was chock full of what I can only imagine to be a lot of Catholics – practicing Catholics, curious Catholics, and perhaps those that have fallen away. One of my first thoughts was how great it would be, at Easter time and after a 2-year pandemic put a hiatus on may churchgoers’ attendance, if this was the thing to get people back to church.
While I’d love to sit here and review the entire movie for you, I don’t know that I’m qualified to tell you much more than you really should see it for yourself. The story is intriguing and if you didn’t know about the real Father Stu before, you’ll leave the theater searching for him on Google and wondering what else there is to learn about his compelling life. What I want to talk about today is one part of the movie that stood out to me above all else – and it’s not something that was even a surprise because the words are familiar to me. They should be familiar to you, too.
In his homily during the movie, Father Stu preaches about forgiveness and how “God’s forgiveness is contingent upon us forgiving others.” We all know the Lord's Prayer:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us
and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
I’ve heard and recited this prayer countless times, but what never occurred to me was this conditionality and what it all means. Father Stu’s words kept ringing in the back of my mind: “It ain’t easy to do. Truth is, we ain’t got no power to do it ourselves. ... It’s all God’s grace. You’ve just got to let him in. He’ll do the heavy lifting.” This brought to mind some advice I was given once upon a time. I was told that we should forgive others not because they deserve the forgiveness, but because we deserve the peace. So, naturally, I went home and began searching for clarity. I began with Scripture.
The Gospel of Matthew states that, “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” (Matthew 6:14-15) So, what does this mean? It means that everyone is not just forgiven, unconditionally. Otherwise, we’d all be walking around this earth in a certain state of grace, without any need of repentance for salvation. Think of it like this: We receive forgiveness at the cost of the life of the Son of God. But the efficacy of that forgiveness rests on our own hearts. If we are bent on holding a grudge or remaining angry or bitter toward someone, we are not going to produce good fruit. We are not saved because we don’t cherish his forgiveness, we don’t trust in him and his forgiveness. If we are to embrace and treasure this forgiveness that we are given, we can’t be hypocrites and simply pay lip-service to the concept.
The truth is that God was so offended that he had to pay the life of his only Son in order for us to attain his forgiveness. Why? Because he loves us that much and he doesn’t like it when people aren’t forgiven. When have I ever been that offended myself? The short answer is: I haven’t. There is nothing that has been done to me that would require that heavy of a price. When you think about it this way, it makes holding a grudge against someone else seem, well, petty and trivial.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church breaks down this petition, too. It calls the words astonishing. “If it consisted only of the first phrase, ‘And forgive us our trespasses,’ it might have been included, implicitly, in the first three petitions of the Lord's Prayer, since Christ's sacrifice is ‘that sins may be forgiven.’ But, according to the second phrase, our petition will not be heard unless we have first met a strict requirement.” The petition we are requesting looks to the future, but we are first called to respond by the inclusion of the single word, “as.” (CCC 2838)
God doesn’t apply a blanket-forgiveness to us. He forgives us as we repent, much like the Golden Rule. “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12) God forgives us as we repent, but what exactly is required of us in that repentance? We continue to always pray “forgive us our trespasses,” because we sin all the time. Some sins are venial and others are mortal, but all sins need forgiveness.
However, the mercy we can hope for will not “penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Love, like the Body of Christ, is indivisible; we cannot love the God we cannot see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see.” (CCC 2840) When we refuse to forgive others, our hearts remain hardened and closed and impervious to the love and mercy of God.
In considering this single word, as, we also have to understand that it’s not just a one-and-done way of Jesus teaching us. He states in Matthew 5:48: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And in Luke 6:36: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” And also in John 13:34: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” We can’t just look from the outside in and expect all to be given to us. We must also model ourselves after that which we are seeking. We have to participate. It is in this participation, guided by the Holy Spirit, that we “can make ‘ours’ the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. Then the unity of forgiveness becomes possible and we find ourselves "forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave’ us.” (CCC 2842)
As I was reading all of these words, I began reflecting on my own life. Of course, I am a sinner. I have made more wrong choices than I care to admit, but I am able to humbly acknowledge my need for forgiveness in my own life. I’ve also been wronged. I’ve been on the receiving end of many hurtful words and actions, both directly and indirectly. And I couldn’t help but wonder, why do I still feel angry sometimes? Why, when I am usually pretty good about forgiving others, does my mind still wander back to those moments and the memory of those wrongs gnaw away at me?
Anger, in and of itself, isn’t sinful. Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians that we can “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, ... All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. [And] be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.” (Ephesians 4:26, 31-32) Just because we forgive someone does not mean that we must treat them as if they had never sinned. We are reasonable beings, and that would require us to let go of our reason as well as our anger.
In Dives in Misericordia, John Paul II addresses this very thing. He writes that the “requirement of forgiveness does not cancel out the objective requirements of justice. ... In no passage of the gospel message does forgiveness, or mercy as its source, mean indulgence toward evil, toward scandals, toward injury or insult. In any case, reparation for evil and scandal, compensation for injury, and satisfaction for insult are conditions for forgiveness.” (DM 14) This means that we aren’t obligated to forgive people who do not want us to. We aren’t called to unconditional forgiveness, because God does not unconditionally forgive us. We aren’t obligated to grant forgive before repentance.
In Luke’s Gospel, we read: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:3–4) Jesus says to forgive if he repents, not regardless of whether or not he does so. This particular teaching also assumes that the sinner admits his wrong.
I am not saying that unconditional love and forgiveness don’t exist. And indiscriminate forgiveness? I haven’t met anyone that practices that yet, but I’ll let you know if I ever find them. I am saying that if someone isn’t repentant, you don’t have to forgive him, but if you forgive him anyway, that has merit. Provided it doesn’t enable someone and encourage future bad behavior, it’s commendable even. But it isn’t required. That is precisely why the forgiveness of others is so difficult sometimes – our humanness gets in the way. “It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession. ... Forgiveness also bears witness that, in our world, love is stronger than sin.” (CCC 2843-2844)
In my RCIA classes, I teach that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Christian life. (CCC 1324) The Eucharist is the apex of the Sacraments of Initiation. I know this, I share this, and I practice this. But I also believe that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the greatest gifts we have in this life. The grace that comes from this metanoia, this turning toward God, is immeasurable. The Sacrament of Reconciliation offers us the new possibility to convert, restores us to God’s grace, and joins us with him in an intimate friendship. (CCC 1446, 1448) I tell people it’s like going to the gym. It’s not always something that you have to look forward to, but I guarantee that when you are finished you won’t regret going. And the more you go, the more you will see results. If you seek reconciliation, you will see good fruits in your own life. You will more readily recognize the sins in your own life and seek to be better. You will forgive others more easily. You will be more compassionate toward others’ shortcomings. Your relationship with Jesus will grow. Your reception of the Eucharist will be clarified. And you will seek integrity in your own life. (Catholic-Link.org)
So, let God do the heavy lifting. Whether you are seeking forgiveness for yourself, or trying to move past a wrong in your own life – let the Holy Spirit guide you and work through you. Let the love outweigh the sin. We’ve just passed through a Holy Week and into an Easter season that helps us see clearly how God can lift any amount of love. His love can and will do anything; all we have to do is ask.