It goes against our sinful human nature to renounce vengeance and to leave our malefactors unpunished, but this is what is expected of us. “‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Rom. 12:19). This very difficult teaching was obeyed by the saints — although in some cases, not without much struggle — and we must also heed it.
The first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, gives us a powerful example of Christian forgiveness. The Acts of the Apostles tells how he was stoned to death for his fearless proclamation of the Gospel. His last words were “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60)
This was also the sentiment expressed by the virgin and martyr St. Maria Goretti, who was murdered in 1902. Maria was assaulted by a neighboring youth named Alessandro Serenelli; when she resisted his sexual advances, the enraged youth repeatedly stabbed her. Before dying in a hospital the following day, Maria expressed her forgiveness of Alessandro.
St. John Vianney noted, “The saints have no hatred, no bitterness; they forgive everything, and think they deserve much more for their offenses against God.” For example, St. Louis IX, who reigned as King of France for thirty-five years, was known for his mercy and impartial justice and even forgave members of the nobility who unsuccessfully rebelled against his rule.
The founder of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius of Loyola, once walked a hundred miles during the winter to nurse a man who had fallen ill — a man who, only a few weeks earlier, had stolen Ignatius’s meager savings.
During the persecution of the Church by Queen Elizabeth I of England, the priest and martyr St. Edmund Campion was betrayed and arrested; while in prison, he was visited by the man who had betrayed him. Not only did Edmund forgive his betrayer; he also urged him to leave England, where he might be in danger himself, and gave him a letter of safe-conduct to a Catholic nobleman in Germany.
Our Lord’s parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:23-35) reminds us that if we insist on strict justice in the cases of those who’ve sinned against us, we will also be held fully liable for our own far greater offenses against the infinite majesty of God. Because the saints were so honest in admitting their own sins, it became very easy and natural for them to forgive the offenses of others.
How can we learn to control our natural tendency to lash out against those who hurt us? After all, our sincere desire to practice Christian forgiveness can, under certain circumstances, easily be overwhelmed by strong feelings of rage or personal affront. Tsixteenth-century priest St. Philip Neri suggested that we practice controlling our emotions: we pretend that we’ve just suffered terrible insults or misfortune and then imagine ourselves imitating Christ’s example by bearing these burdens with patience and charity. This sort of rehearsing will eventually make it easier for us automatically to respond in a more loving way to real affronts.
Also, as St. Augustine notes, “There are many kinds of alms, the giving of which helps us to obtain pardon for our sins; but none is greater than that by which we forgive from our heart a sin that someone has committed against us.”
In God’s eyes the most dignified or noble response to an injury is to turn the other cheek.
One night two thieves stole the oxen that belonged to the hermit St. Philip of Zell, but in trying to escape, they got lost in the woods, and at sunrise, to their great dismay, they found themselves back in front of Philip’s hermitage. The saint emerged, knowing what had happened, and the confused and frightened thieves begged his forgiveness. Philip welcomed and reassured them, and let them go — but only after feeding them. As these examples show, true Christian forgiveness isn’t meant to be only a religious concept, but a way of life.
Sometimes forgiving those who wrong us can set the stage for miracles of grace. As St. John of the Cross said, “Where there is no love, pour love in, and you will draw out love,” and several examples verify the truth of this observation. For instance, the thirteenth-century priest St. Peregrine Laziosi was quite irreligious as a youth and actively involved himself in a political movement against the Church. The Pope sent St. Philip Benizi to mediate a dispute, but he was accosted by Peregrine, who struck him in the face. When St. Philip responded simply by obeying our Lord’s teaching to turn the other cheek (Luke 6:29), the future St. Peregrine immediately repented of what he had done and converted to Catholicism.
The great bishop of Geneva, St. Francis de Sales, was intensely hated by a lawyer there, who shot at the saint; he missed Francis, but struck a priest who was standing with him. Accordingly, the would-be assassin was sentenced to death. Francis, however, pleaded on his behalf, and his death sentence was commuted. Even so, the lawyer showed no gratitude, but actually spat in Francis’s face. The saint responded sadly, “I have been able to save you from human justice, but unless you change your dispositions, you will fall into the hands of Divine Justice, from which no power can save you.” As St. Francis shows us, the fact that not everyone will accept our offer of forgiveness doesn’t excuse us from the obligation of extending it.
Is it always easy to forgive others? Certainly not. Anger is a powerful emotion, and even saints can be tempted by a desire for revenge, but they simply try harder to use the help God provides to overcome these feelings. When his father and brothers were murdered, Bl. Peter of Pisa wanted to leave his monastery and avenge their deaths, but his sister Bl. Clare Gambacorta aided him in rising above this temptation. By fervent prayer and with the help of his sister’s example, Peter arrived at the point where he could sincerely forgive the murderers.
An even more dramatic conversion and act of mercy involved St. John Gualbert. John’s older brother Hugh was murdered by someone pretending to be a friend. John swore vengeance, and one day encountered his unarmed enemy in a narrow passage that allowed no room for escape. Drawing his sword, John advanced, but was surprised when the murderer fell to his knees and crossed his arms on his breast. This posture reminded John of how Christ forgave His enemies while on the Cross. Profoundly moved, John put away his sword, embraced his enemy, and left him in peace. (It’s said that John then went to a church to pray, and the image of Christ on the crucifix there miraculously bowed its head in recognition of John’s sincere repentance and his act of forgiving his enemy.)
John Gualbert, like every other saint before and after him, came to realize the absolutely essential need to forgive our enemies, for Christ will reign only in a heart that seeks to be at peace.
For Further Reflection
“If you are suffering from a bad man’s injustice, forgive him, lest there be two bad men.” — St. Augustine
“Pardon one another so that later on you will not remember the injury. The recollection of an injury is itself wrong. It adds to our anger, nurtures our sin, and hates what is good. It is a rusty arrow and poison for the soul. It puts all virtue to flight.” — St. Francis of Paola
“I cannot believe that a soul which has arrived so near to Mercy itself, where she knows what she is, and how many sins God has forgiven her, should not instantly and willingly forgive others, and be pacified and wish well to everyone who has injured her, because she remembers the kindness and favors our Lord has shown her, whereby she has seen proofs of exceeding great love, and she is glad to have an opportunity offered to show some gratitude to her Lord.” — St. Teresa of Avila
This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Esper’s Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.
Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash