Arts and Culture

The Great Gift of Forgiveness

by Father Robert Lauder

Fifth in a series


Reading a section in Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011, pp. 262) about Judas and forgiveness has set me thinking about what a great gift forgiveness is. It has also moved me to recall some very sad experiences I had with people who refused to forgive. I suspect that many readers of this column can recall similar experiences.

My memories go back to when I was a young priest. I recall an incident that happened in a rectory office. Though I cannot remember all the details, I know I was counseling a married couple. The husband had done something that angered his wife, and she refused to forgive him. Though I cannot recall exactly what he had done, it was not something really terrible. What struck me was how the wife was giving him the silent treatment, and no matter how often he apologized, she would not budge.

Now, after many years of priestly experience, if I was in that situation I would be much more aggressive than I was then. Without excusing what the husband did, I would try to help the wife see how much damage she was doing to their relationship by making her husband beg.

Another memory that comes back concerns an Easter Sunday morning. A man in the parish had taken offense at something I had done or had failed to do. I was standing at the Church door on Easter Sunday morning as he entered, and he made a great show of not speaking to me. Later during the Eucharistic celebration, he approached the altar and received the Host from me. Apparently his conscience judged that what he was doing was not sinful. He must not have seen how the two actions, refusing to speak to someone and then accepting the Eucharist from that person had two contradictory meanings.

The last memory that has come back to me involved a family at a funeral Mass. Two sisters were burying their mother. I discovered during the wake that the two sisters had not spoken to one another for years. Being a bit naïve, I was confident that I would be able to patch up the rift. I must have spent more than an hour speaking to them and emphasizing that it would be terrible to not forgive one another before their mother’s funeral Mass.

After coming up with every motive I could think of, I asked them if they would reconcile. Each answered: “If she says she is sorry first.” They buried their mother at a Mass still alienated from one another.

I have heard people say “God will forgive them, but I never will.” Isn’t that blasphemous? Isn’t the person who refuses to forgive making himself or herself greater than God? What right do any of us have to refuse to forgive if God is always ready to forgive?

Commenting on St. John’s description of Judas’ betrayal, the Holy Father points out that what happened to Judas is beyond psychological explanation because Judas has come under the power of another. The pope suggests that Judas betrays his friendship with Jesus because he is under the influence of another power to which he has opened himself.

Of course, the pope is referring to the power of the Prince of Evil. The pope notes that after the betrayal Judas can no longer believe in forgiveness. To believe that not even God can forgive you is the same as despair.

The Holy Father writes the following:

“His remorse turns into despair. Now he sees only himself and his darkness; he no longer sees the light of Jesus, which can illumine and overcome the darkness. He shows us the wrong type of remorse; the type that is unable to hope, that sees only its own darkness, the type that is destructive and in no way authentic. Genuine remorse is marked by the certainty of hope born of a faith in the superior power of the light that was made flesh in Jesus.

John concludes the passage about Judas with these dramatic words: ‘After receiving the morsel, he immediately went out; and it was night’ (13:30). Judas goes out – in a deeper sense. He goes into the night; he moves out of light into darkness: the ‘power of darkness’ has taken hold of him (cf. Jn 3:19; Lk 22:53).”

The pope’s description of Judas’ situation after the betrayal is powerful and even a little frightening. There is a power of evil, and though God’s power is far greater, we must cooperate with God’s love for us, a love that is not withdrawn even after we betray the One who loves us.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.