By Frank Wessling
Somewhere in the center of Christian faith is an experience of forgiveness. Because forgiveness is hard for us to do — sometimes seemingly impossible — we forget how important it is. We forget the core of our story: that the life given us is meant to be all good; we got greedy and ruined it, but God forgives us for the mess we make and shows the way to a new paradise.
Not that we don’t think of forgiveness. We do, but for ourselves. The sacrament of reconciliation symbolizes a natural human need where the church sees God at work, first moving us to sorrowful awareness that something is very wrong, then drawing us to seek a healing of what was broken and a change of whatever in ourselves contributed to this rupture of goodness.
We go to the source of wholeness to restore it when things seem to be falling apart.
Unfortunately, we Catholics aren’t conscious enough of doing God’s work from the other side: being agents of forgiveness and restorers of hope. The Gospel of Jesus directs us to be such agents even in the most awful circumstance, even when it involves the sexual abuse of children by clergy.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven… (Mt.5:43-46).”
Every parent understands the first meaning of “enemy.” It’s the person who abuses their child. And the second meaning is like it: the person who abuses any child. This is an enemy threatening such horror that it’s hard to think of anything except eliminating it. Wipe it out. Get rid of it.
Do that first, and then it might be possible to think about forgiveness.
This is the mindset controlling our response to the clergy sex abuse scandal. A certain amount of reform has resulted in the church: more careful screening of candidates for priesthood, swift removal of threats when they appear, more realistic and careful oversight by bishops.
What has not happened, what is much harder to achieve, is the transformation that comes with forgiveness. The institutional changes carried out so far have been necessary but they are not sufficient to make this crisis a time of grace for the church. That requires us to let a more God-like spirit enter our response.
It requires a spirit that dissolves “enemies” with the power of forgiveness.
It is so hard to do this because it’s hard to accept our own contribution to the mess, our own place in the “enemies” of God’s goodness. We’d rather keep the focus on others more deserving of blame and shame. Father Richard Rohr, the Franciscan spiritual writer, has useful comments on this in his book “Things Hidden.”
“In forgiveness,” he says, “it is precisely my ego self that has to die, my need to be right, to be in control, to be superior. Very few want to go there, but that is exactly what Jesus emphasized and taught.” We are not like those horrible men who took advantage of children. Their evil is much greater than ours, so they must go to judgment first. But when we do this, when we keep our righteous distance from this evil, we are not growing spiritually at all. We go backward instead, hardening our hearts.
Rohr goes on: “As long as you can deal with evil by some other means than forgiveness you will never experience the real meaning of evil and sin. You will keep projecting it over there, fearing it over there and attacking it over there instead of gazing on it within and weeping over it within all of us.”
Someone has suggested that Pope Benedict XVI needs to be seen weeping over the evil done in the church by those who abused children. That would fit the situation we have, particularly as an imitation of Peter in the Gospel weeping in realization that he has betrayed Jesus. It might also help all of us to remember something essential: that as we are part of the people needing forgiveness, we must also be part of a forgiving people.
“Our Father in heaven … forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us….”