To forgive offences willingly

By Br Mark O’Connor FMS, 10 April 2020
A close up image of The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. Image: Wikimedia Commons.



One is struck at times at how much anger and resentment exists today in the Church, and society, at so many levels. The tragedy is that if we do not forgive those who hurt us, we actually destroy ourselves and become paralysed, unable to move forward in discipleship.

But forgiveness and healing are possible! I was reminded of this a few years back when, in 2008, a brief but moving report about a ‘tragic terrible accident’ featured in The Sydney Morning Herald. It concerned the forgiveness extended by a Samoan family to a young man who had gotten into a fatal fight with their son outside a Sydney pub.

In an extraordinary scene inside the King Street court complex following an ‘accidental death’ verdict, the family of the dead man wept and embraced the young, accused rugby player, in an expression of forgiveness, some kissing his cheek. One female relative who did not want to be named told him, after kissing him, that she hoped his life would change for the good: “You will always be in our prayers”.

The accused young man shed tears as he embraced the deceased’s sisters and nieces and a nephew, who had travelled from Samoa and New Zealand for the trial that ran for seven days. These Samoan relatives also embraced and kissed the Australian defendant’s parents and relatives, who were weeping as the jury brought in their verdict. Both families were like two sporting teams leaving a playing field, embracing, hugging, weeping and kissing.

The Sydney detective sergeant, who investigated the matter throughout, said of the Samoan family: “They are simply the nicest family I have ever encountered. A deeply religious and loving family who heard the evidence and prayed constantly throughout the trial, not only for the defendant, but for his family, the judge, the jury, the legal counsels and the police.

“I have never seen anything like this in my career as a police officer; the ability of people to accept and forgive,” he said.

Before leaving the court, the family joined hands in a room and held a collective prayer for the young man who accidentally killed their son.

How is such forgiveness possible? It defies belief at one level, given the human desire for revenge, which is so deep in all of us. Clearly, the remarkable love and compassion of this Samoan family can only have come from a divine source.

It was the late Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt who once said that Jesus of Nazareth introduced forgiveness into the human condition. For Arendt, the power to forgive constitutes the true content of Jesus’ miracles. So often Jesus proclaimed: “Your sins are forgiven – get up!”

A blessing of the Catholic Tradition is that forgiveness, healing and mercy are readily accessible in the sacrament of Reconciliation. We also need to understand the importance of community reconciliation as families and groups. The Samoan family forgave both individually and as a unit. Pope John Paul II also acted for all Catholics when he led our entire Church in asking for forgiveness and reconciliation for errors made and sins committed by Christians over the centuries that disfigured both humanity and the Body of Christ.

In that regard, Irish Bishop Willie Walsh (now retired) is particularly inspiring. His story is recounted in a wonderful book, Facing Forgiveness (Ave Maria Press, 2007). Bishop Willie modelled a unique way of concretely fostering reconciliation in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal.

In December 1999 – in preparation for the new millennium – he made a ‘Pilgrimage of Reconciliation’ across his diocese in an attempt to begin a process of reconciliation and healing, and to beg pardon not only for the sins of sexual abuse committed by those acting in the name of God and of the Church, but also for all the hurts that people had experienced in and from the Church and its leaders.

His journey lasted three weeks and wound its way through 40 towns and villages. Bishop Willie, who was in his mid-60s at the time of this pilgrimage, walked from church to church in the diocese in the cold, rainy December Irish weather. He took no umbrella and simply carried a plain wooden pastoral staff, the symbol of his role as shepherd. The members of the parish where he had just presided over a healing and reconciliation liturgy would accompany him halfway to the next parish, where he would be met by parishioners from his next destination. They would then begin the journey of penance with him to their parish. When he arrived, he would celebrate a sacramental reconciliation service.

A poignant moment in this pilgrimage is recounted. One of the priests of the diocese had been erroneously accused of sexual abuse. During the Sunday Liturgy at which the falsely accused was re-installed, Bishop Willie stopped in the middle of his homily, set aside his prepared text, and said to the congregation, “How difficult it is to be a priest today.” At that point he began to cry, and a teenage girl emerged from the congregation with a tissue in hand to dry his tears. Bishop Willie Walsh is one of the most human and compassionate bishops in our Church.

May we too in our own journeys follow the witness of these fellow Christian disciples – for there is no more powerful witness to the Good News than to see divine forgiveness and compassion gracing human hearts.

This article is part of a series of Lenten reflections entitled A Spirit of Mercy: Reflections on the Works of Mercy by Br Mark O’Connor FMS.

Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications in the Diocese of Parramatta.


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