The late American author and theologian, Frederick Buechner, once wrote: “To forgive somebody is to say one way or another, ‘You have done something so unspeakable, and by all rights I should call it quits between us. Both my pride and my principles demand no less. However, although I make no guarantees that I will be able to forget what you’ve done and though we may both carry scars from this for the rest our lives, I refuse to let it stand between us…’.” As we look at the scars people carry from times that they were hurt by others and as we consider the unspeakable acts that terrorist groups, political opponents, and rival gangs do to their enemies, we sometimes wonder if forgiveness is within the realm of human possibility.
Among the first questions asked of the new Pope Francis by the press in March of 2013 was, “Who are you?” He responded by saying, “I am a sinner.” In that famous remark he reminds us that we all share in the human condition—what the church calls original sin. We are flawed beings who seek the mercy of God: divine forgiveness; we’re just a collection of sinners hoping to one day live as a communion of saints (though it may not be possible on earth as it is in heaven). We begin each Catholic Mass by calling to mind our sins as the presider, in the name of Christ, says, “May Almighty God have mercy on us. Forgive us of our sins and bring us to life everlasting.” On The Feast of the Immaculate Conception in December of 2015 the pontiff declared an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy so that we might more fully embrace God’s divine grace. He spoke about the mercification or mercifying of the world and even wrote books entitled The Name of God is Mercy and The Church of Mercy: a vision for the church. He, no doubt, believes that God’s mercy and our desire to create a better society can actually do so; it begins with our willingness to forgive and to be forgiven.
But many people, especially those who choose to exist in bunkers of extremism or castles of ideology that polarize us, do not possess the capacity to forgive those who do not think or feel as they do. It plays out in daily news about Jews and Palestinians that co-exist in the Middle East amid massacre, terror, and constant mayhem, Putin’s attack on Ukraine, Sudan’s civil war, and immigrants from lands of persecution and hardship. It is nearly impossible to forgive when someone or group has murdered, maimed, or carried out horrendous atrocities against us or our friends. Darryl Burton, a Kansas City minister who was falsely accused of murder and imprisoned for twenty-four years before being exonerated, says that he couldn’t forgive on his own but, like Jesus from the cross, he asked our heavenly Father to work through him to forgive those who persecuted him, causing such immense suffering.
We don’t often model forgiveness well in our nation. The eight hardline republican members of the House of Representatives who ousted the speaker and the eight infamous democrat squad members have no interest in walking forward together for the good of our nation—they are stuck in thinking that their way is the only way. Pope Francis, on the other hand, welcomes his critics who are harsh and often cruel to come to the table of dialogue, to walk forward together by listening to one another and the Holy Spirit. He reminds us that there is not one way, but that Our Lord provides many avenues so that God’s people can advance. He teaches us that forgiveness will bring us freedom to act more fully as God’s children, and God’s mercy will give us hope that we can move from being sinners to saints. Though forgiveness may be impossible for us sinners, our Heavenly Father, who forgives the sins of the world, will work through us for the mercification of the earth so that we can walk forward together. Maybe those in the extremist bunkers will eventually come along.