When I was in college, my family had a Hungarian Jewish friend who had lived through the Nazi occupation and survived a concentration camp. She had lost family members in the camps. I noticed she had no anger or bitterness towards the Germans. I asked her about it, and she shared with me that in the 1950s she was bitter, angry, and resentful. She said she gradually realized there was nothing she could do to undo what had happened. She said she was moved to forgive them and let go and she received great freedom and peace from that time forward. She taught me an unbelievably valuable lesson that day about forgiveness, one that I still remember today.
We live in a time of great volatility. Unlike God, our society is quick to anger, abounding in judgement, and seems to remember publicly every past sin captured through social media. Bitterness, anger, vitriol, and hatred abound in social media, the media, the floor of Congress, and in our schools. Society, and yes, the Church too, has a great need for forgiveness.
In this upcoming Lenten Season, I invite you to pray about and offer forgiveness in three major areas.
First, I invite you to consider if there is anything you need to forgive God or the Church for. To be clear, God is perfect and is not guilty of any wrongdoing. However, it is common for us to experience great pain in not understanding actions and events which God has allowed to happen. Why did he permit the Holocaust, the World Trade Center attack, the abortion of over 60 million unborn children in the United States, and other seemingly endless atrocities. Many of these are brought on by the freedom God has given to human beings who choose an evil over a good. We tend to blame God rather than humanity for the evil we experience.
We also experience the pain of prayers not answered in the ways we wanted, or loved ones who are estranged from us or God and never come to know the Lord. In these situations, we can become angry with God and become closed off to a relationship with him.
In both, we do not let God be God. We forget that we are called to trust God’s will. We are to be confident that he knows and wills what is for our good. If you find yourself in this position, I invite you contemplate your image of God. Is your God the loving Father that Jesus reveals in the Gospel, or a God you want to control?
Too many times, the faithful and unfaithful alike have been harmed by representatives of the Church. This is especially tragic because clergy have a responsibility to faithfully represent God’s mercy, love, and compassion. When a leader in the Church harms someone, it can be interpreted and felt as if God himself committed the offense.
I felt the pain of betrayal from leaders in the Church when the McCarrick scandal broke in 2018. It can be easy to demonize public figures who have committed horrific crimes, but the call to forgive extends to them as well. I have forgiven the former cardinal, and regularly pray that he repents of his sins and publicly asks for forgiveness for the damage he has caused.
Take time in prayer to pray and think about your image of God, then write about it. If you are at a point where you are ready to move forward from pain you have experienced, ask the Lord if there is anything you blame him for and seek forgiveness for that. Ask the Lord to reveal his love for you as his beloved daughter or son. Go to the image of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel. Imagine the Father’s warm embrace and his total forgiveness of you. Or, for those of you who watched the final episode of season three of The Chosen, imagine Jesus holding you as he held Peter in this powerful scene.
The second group I invite you to forgive is your enemies. Jesus teaches, “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). In a time where our society is so divided, not over policies but over essential principles (like Israel during the time of Hosea), we must take this teaching seriously. Our temptation is to see people promoting sinful and destructive causes in the public sphere and consider them our enemies.
We must remember, “Our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Eph 6:12). Spiritual warfare is real, and you are on the battlefield, whether you realize it or not.
Our job is to love every single person we encounter no matter their political affiliation, ideological affiliation, or the crimes (civil or moral) they have committed. We speak the truth because charity demands it. Loving others who hold differing views from us does not include affirming or condoning immoral behavior, but it does include accepting them and treating them with dignity and civility.
As an antidote to anger, hatred, and resentment toward your enemies, I invite you to go to a quiet place, in adoration, or before a crucifix in your room, and make a list of your enemies, whoever they may be. Ask the Lord to reveal to you who you see as an enemy, and ask him to help you to forgive as he forgives, to love as he loves.
If they are committing sins, bring them in your prayer to Mass with you. Ask the Lord to forgive them their sin and then imagine the person and bathe them in the Precious Blood of Jesus that he gives us for our healing and sanctification during the consecration of the Blood of Christ. Ask the Lord to open their hearts to his love so that they may be open to his mercy and healing and repent.
Also in quiet prayer, examine your heart and ask the Lord if there are people who have hurt you whom you have not forgiven, and write down their names. Go with Jesus to that person in your imagination and ask the Lord to help you forgive as he forgives and calls his disciples (i.e., you) to forgive.
Finally, I invite you to consider whether you need to forgive yourself. This is an often overlooked but incredibly common need. If we are honest, many of us have committed great offenses against God and others. In doing so, we can often find it is easier to forgive others than ourselves. I hear this often from people who have made the decision to abort a child or have committed another grave sin. They have experienced profound sorrow, repented, and sought the Lord’s forgiveness in the sacrament, yet continue to suffer from their decision. I have even heard them say, “I know that God forgives me, I just can’t forgive myself.”
Shame can hold us bound and the devil, the accuser, keeps throwing the sin at us or recalling the memory of sin. He may even tempt us with words such as, “you will always be unclean,” or “God will never forgive you,” or “you will never be enough,” or “you are a mistake.” All of those are lies! You are precious in the eyes of the Father! Jesus tells us in the Gospel there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than the 99 righteous (Lk 15:7-10).
Let us repent of holding on to any guilt, shame, or unforgiveness towards ourselves, for the Father only desires to console and forgive us at the cross with Jesus. After hearing the words of absolution in Confession, I encourage you to sit quietly in Church and simply bask in the joy of the Father. The Father is gazing at you with abundant joy at that moment. Taste it and experience it!
In closing, I pray that this Lent is characterized by a renewed spirit of forgiveness and healing for you. Let us be humble enough to offer it to those who have offended us. Let us experience the freedom and love Jesus desires to bring to us. I pray that new paths of friendship, healing, and charity will flow from our forgiveness. I pray, too, that our country will no longer continue down the path of unforgiving self-destruction but will recover faith in the God who is love and in his mercy.
May our Lord bless you this Lent and may Our Lady of Sorrows, who suffered alongside her Son, bring to light the areas of unforgiveness in our lives, so that the mercy of Jesus Christ may be received, shared, and lived for the glory of the Father.
+ Samuel J. Aquila
Archbishop of Denver