Who among us can forget the horrendous tragedy that enveloped our country four years ago today? The terrorist attacks in New York, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania still haunt our memories and weigh down our hearts. Today, once again, we pray for all those whose lives were unjustly taken away, asking the Lord to give them eternal life in His Presence. We pray too for their family members and friends who remain, trying to cope with the tremendous loss they have experienced. We pray for our country that we will learn how to cherish life more deeply in the face of these terrorist attacks and also in the face of Hurricane Katrina. Even after terrible tragedy, there are valuable lessons we can learn and must learn.
One such lesson is forgiveness and its essential place in living our Christian faith. We have just heard God's word proclaimed in our midst and the theme is undeniably “forgiveness.” Recall from the first reading: “Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?”; from the second reading: “"so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's” and the Lord to whom we belong and before whom we must render an account of our thoughts, words and deeds, taught us in the Our Father to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us;” finally, from the Gospel, where Jesus tells the parable about the unforgiving servant and makes this point: those who have experienced limitless forgiveness from God are not to put limits on forgiving others. I am sure that our reaction to the behavior of the unforgiving servant was to ask: how could he be so insensitive, to not forgive someone who owed him a mere fraction of the enormous amount he had owed his master but was forgiven? But, often, do we not react in a similar way: not forgiving others when God has forgiven us every time we sought His mercy " every sin, however big or small, we have committed?
Yes, the theme in God's Word today is forgiveness. In our lives, in our relationships with the family, neighbors, co-workers, and parishioners, we experience hurt, misunderstanding, ridicule, rejection in one form or other. Our initial reaction is probably not forgiveness; it is more likely getting even. We need to hear again and to learn better God's word on forgiveness. Since we were created in His image and likeness and God forgives us, we must forgive as He forgives. Or, conversely, if we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven. There is no doubt: forgiveness leading to reconciliation is an essential aspect of our being disciples of Jesus, of our living together has members of His Church. It is part and parcel of our ecclesial life.
Of course, forgiving is difficult to do! As I said moments ago, for most of us, our initial reaction to being hurt or offended, to being wronged, is getting even, revenge, " certainly not forgiving. But, if that is the first or initial reaction for most of us, or even if most people within society would persist in not forgiving, we cannot be that way. Why? Because we are different! No " we are not better than others, but we are different since we are the disciples of Jesus, we form His Body the Church. “For, if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord.” Therefore, as His disciples and members of His Church, we must give to one another the very forgiveness God gives to us.
But, the fact remains: to forgive is difficult. There are things which help us to live out this Gospel duty to forgive. Prayer is the first of these ways because we are transformed by prayer, transformed to put on the mind and heart of Jesus, transformed to put into practice Jesus' words in today's Gospel: “So will my heavenly Father do to you unless each of you forgives your brother from the heart.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us: “It is there, in fact, 'in the depths of the heart,' that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.” Yes, through prayer, we can be transformed enough to forgive, to mean, in fact, “forgive us as we forgive others.”
A second help is the Sacrament of Reconciliation or as what we popularly call it “confession.” Since this sacrament is truly a meeting with Jesus and with the Church, both of whom are made visible by the priest, we cannot help but surrender to the grace of forgiveness given us and then pass it on to others.
A third help is the example of those who do forgive " like beloved Pope John Paul II, who went to visit his would-be assassin in prison precisely to forgive him. Above all, it is the example of Christ Himself that urges us on to forgive " Christ, who lived forgiveness as He was being murdered on the cross: “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”
Yes, there are times, like today, when we struggle to forgive in the face of horrendous hurt or grave offense. At the other times, the hurt or offense may be less in comparison but nonetheless painful. At all times, as disciples of Jesus, as members of His Church, we must live the forgiveness we have received. After all, when all is said and done, the Church is a community of forgiveness and reconciliation. How can we be sure? Once more, listen to Jesus as He is asked by Saint Peter: “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” No, Jesus replied: “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” " always! Amen.