March 25, 2016

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us

Cynthia DewesPope Francis has declared this to be a Holy Year of Mercy. Sounds familiar, and even easy to do, but while it may be a familiar theme, it’s often not easy to accomplish.

The parable of the Prodigal Son comes to mind. We once knew a family in which a teenage son rebelled and ran away for a few months. When he finally returned unexpectedly, the entire family wept together and embraced him. And, as in the parable, another son went to his room and slammed the door. He was disgusted at the warm reception for someone who had caused so much distress.

Luckily, the sacrament of reconciliation is ready and waiting to help us show mercy to others and gain mercy for ourselves. During Lent, as in the rest of the year, our pastor provided many opportunities for confession. Even we elderly laggards availed ourselves of it.

As a convert to Catholicism, I didn’t know what to expect when going to confession for the first time. But it turned out that confession not only relieves guilt, but also is instructive for practical living. Fine points are brought to our attention, as in the example that most of us are guilty of vanity rather than of pride. We may think we’re hot stuff, but Satan tried to be God, which is a bit more serious. We are usually vain, but Satan is proud.

Recently, I read an article in which the author pointed out that mercy and reconciliation do not necessarily go hand in hand. We may truly forgive someone, but still not be reconciled with them. This may be hard to take when we’re trying to do the right thing. It could be because the one forgiven is not yet ready to take responsibility for his or her contribution to the problem. We must be patient.

Often we feel that we’re not the guilty party in a dispute, which makes it even harder to forgive the other. We once experienced a dispute over inheritance (a common bone of contention) in which one party was the undisputed villain. Finally, I wrote a letter to that person apologizing for the rift in our relationship, but not for condemning the injustice they had caused. I never heard from her again, but I actually felt satisfied about the matter. That was mercy without reconciliation, all right.

Now, it’s very hard to be the one asking for mercy because of a wrong we’ve committed. First, we must admit our guilt and own it, and then (we feel) lower ourselves to beg forgiveness. But it’s a necessary requirement for continuing on our spiritual journey, as well as healing our relationships and allowing others to be merciful. It’s one of those extremely human things that are so hard to do, and so satisfying when we do them.

Ultimately, all forgiveness is given by God. God even forgives our human desires to belittle our own faults and transgressions. After all, we think, we’re not axe murderers or rapists. So what’s the big deal about being nasty to a clerk when we’re upset about something else, or fudging a little on the taxes we owe? The childish excuse of “everyone else does it” is so tempting.

Pope Francis was certainly inspired by the Holy Spirit when he proclaimed a Year of Mercy. We need to think about how simple, yet profound, that concept can be in our lives and the lives of others.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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