Reconciliation and Forgiveness

In 1819, the government of the Papal States had a real problem with a small town in the mountains south of Rome. The name of the town was Sonnino: it had become the home of former mercenaries that wanted to avoid conscription into Napoleon’s Russia Campaign, who had taken up a lifestyle that was called “brigandage” at the time. Kidnapping, extortion, bribery, theft were a way of life, and the corruption reached all the way up to the Papal Court. Nevertheless, the situation was so bad the government concluded the best thing for all concerned was to raze the town to the ground. Urban renewal was coming to the mountains.

Cardinal Ercole Consalvi gave an order in July 1819 to destroy the town, but before it could happen, a young Roman priest in his early 30s who had just founded a religious community begged them to reconsider. Gaspar del Bufalo, founder of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood asked to go there with his missionaries to convert the banditi to a peaceful lifestyle and a return to the Faith. He got permission to go with his Mission Band, and the core of his message to the banditi was they were beloved children of God, with a core dignity as human beings created in God’s image that meant they were better than the life they were leading.  They didn’t have to go on being what they were; God had something better for them because Christ had redeemed them with his Blood.  Beyond hope, got the men to surrender their arms and live in peace. Sonnino is still there today, living in peace as part of the modern Italian state, and they remember the time when they were almost wiped off the face of the earth. It took a man of great faith and drive to reach out to people considered unreachable.

Alessandro Serenelli was a teenaged Italian farmworker who fatally stabbed Maria Goretti multiple times in July 1902 because she would not submit to his sexual advances. Convicted to prison, he was an unrepentant prisoner for three years until the local bishop visited him, and admitted in a thank you note to the bishop that in a dream Maria gave him lilies that burned in his hands. After his release, he begged Maria’s mother for forgiveness, and she forgave him because her daughter had forgiven him on her deathbed. They went to Mass together and received communion side by side. Afterward, Alessandro prayed for Maria to intercede for him daily, and was present when she was canonized in 1950. He ended his life as a lay brother in a Capuchin monastery where he worked at receptionist and gardener.

Reconciliation is something this country is hungry for, and yet avoids. Our polarized society works against compromise, ridicules forgiveness except for some kinds of debt, generally rejects living our way together to a new Sacred reality.  One of the key charisms, the main ministries of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood (the group I belong to) is Reconciliation.  I offer these two stories of reconciliation, of times and places where forgiveness was given, true healing was able to take place, and people genuinely changed. If nothing else, I offer these as evidence that people are capable of deep change, at least.

Today, these outcomes would be impossible in the United States of America. It would be unlikely the situation in Sonnino would be addressed at all, except with warnings not to go there, and righteous handwringing that such awful places exist. Sonnino would have the same reputation as Harlem, New York, or Watts in LA, or the South Side of Chicago: the situation would be lamented and ineffective actions taken to preserve the dignity of the rulers, but that would be all. If there was a decision to act, to remove the threat, especially if the town were on foreign soil, we would call in Arnold Swartzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Jean Claude Van Damme, Harrison Ford, Delta Force, Navy Seals, Green Berets and even Eddie Murphy to blow the place apart, lock, stock and barrel. We believe evildoers must be punished, preferably violently. Any survivors would be on their own, condemned for living with such awful people and putting up with crime next door, even though they were probably powerless to oppose them.

Today, Alessandro Serenelli wouldn’t be tried as the teenager he was, they would have tried to try him as an adult so they could impose the maximum penalty possible, and at least lock him up for the rest of his life, if not execute him. We would consider that justice and anything less an injustice to Maria Goretti. There would be an explosion of outrage in the press and opinion columns calling for his blood if he got out of prison four years after his conviction, no matter how much he’d changed or who supported him; Maria’s mother would be called weak and/or naive for even talking to him in prison, much less appearing in public with him.

The reason I think these are the likely outcomes is we generally practice demonization in this country: if someone does something evil, they are stripped of their dignity as a human being, and any attempt to preserve it is seen as an offense to the human dignity of their victims. It’s doesn’t even have to be mass murder, any political enemy or person we think is opposed to our interests is either evil or stupid, and stupid is an exceptional case. For liberals, conservatives are evil, and vice versa; for unions, management is evil and vice versa. Associating with the enemy, offering forgiveness, trying to resolve difference and letting go of the past, is a sign of weakness at least, and betrayal at worst.

To demonize a person is an affront to the intrinsic value of human life, just as much as any other crime such as murder, fraud or theft. To say God given human dignity can be taken away is contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, at least. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about the human dignity of others:

The duty of making oneself a neighbor to others and actively serving them becomes even more urgent when it involves the disadvantaged, in whatever area this may be. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me. (Mt. 25:40) “

This same duty extends to those who think or act differently from us. The teaching of Christ goes so far as to require the forgiveness of offenses. He extends the commandment of love, which is that of the New Law, to all enemies. Liberation in the spirit of the Gospel is incompatible with hatred of one’s enemy as a person, but not with hatred of the evil that he does as an enemy. (CCC 1932-33)

The challenge of Forgiveness and the search for Reconciliation is about recognizing and respecting the human dignity of someone who has hurt us. It’s not easy: it’s easier to think of our enemies as monsters. The reason we need to work on it is freedom, freedom from a lifetime of anger, freedom from a lifetime of sustained pain, freedom from feeling we are not in control of our lives.

There are many, many misconceptions about Reconciliation and Forgiveness:

–Reconciliation and Forgiveness aren’t about Relativism. Standards of Good and Evil are always intact: Good is the ideal and Evil is to be avoided. The Law of the Land is not repealed, nor is Natural Law. God still reigns in Heaven.

–Reconciliation doesn’t mean an injustice never happened, or it should be forgotten. God forgives and forgets: no place in Scripture commands us to. We all bear the marks of our wounds. Jesus’ resurrected body bore the marks of His crucifixion. There can be no real Reconciliation without Truth, and no Truth without memory.

–Reconciliation doesn’t mean there are no consequences to actions. Forgiveness isn’t easy grace, or cheap forgiveness. If someone needs to be kept from doing others harm, it should be done with as little force as possible. If something can be set right, it should be.

–Reconciliation isn’t about denying anyone’s rights. We can debate what Rights are and who has them, but the right to extract pain in punishment for pain isn’t a basic human right for Christians. “Vengeance is mine. . . (Rom 12:19) ” says the Lord. This scene from the Merchant of Venice is worth examining as well, especially Portia’s speech about the quality of mercy.

–Reconciliations isn’t about restoring something as it existed before, returning to a status quo ante. Time can’t be turned back, what’s done is done. Once trust is broken, it can never be the same; trust can be rebuilt, but it’s a new relationship that’s different from anything that’s preceded it. Affection betrayed can’t be brought back: it can develop again, but differently.

–Reconciliation isn’t about trusting someone who can’t be trusted. That would be inhuman and dumb, and isn’t part of either Scripture or a Tradition of Faith.

As I’ve read and pondered Reconciliation, I would define it this way: “Living into a new relationship together in Christ.” There are no hidden pains, no truths denied, and ownership of consequences of actions, but an ability to be open to a new relationship built on something, someone more honest and dependable than before. Forgiveness starts with a victim letting go of pain, saying: “What’s done is done, but I won’t let that past pain control my future.” Reconciliation proceeds to work for the best interests for everyone involved, trying to find win-win solutions, trying to accommodate everyone’s legitimate needs and desires, trying to find a way to live together in peace.

An objection could well be: “What about the person who hurt me? Shouldn’t they apologize, at least?” Yes, of course, if that’s possible, that’s ideal. The problem is, waiting for that apology means I can’t let go or forgive in the meantime. Does this make sense to be under this standard? What if the person who hurt us thinks they were doing the right thing, doesn’t think we should have been hurt by what they did? What if the person thinks we deserved what we got, and should suffer the consequences without compliant? What if the person who hurt us is permanently out of our lives, out of contact on the other side of the world, or dead? What if the person who hurt us is so ashamed of their deed they can’t face it, can’t approach us out of fear and/or personal revulsion at what they did? If any of these realities exist, then we’re stuck if we wait for a nice apology. It means we’ve given our wellbeing and wholeness to the control of the person who broke it in the first place.

What if someone who’s hurt us forces an apology on us, shames us into forgiveness and demands we go back to the way it was before without any change in the situation? It’s possible someone could hurt us and use our need to forgive them as a means of ducking responsibility, like a drunk who’s always contrite when they get sober, with promises of reform, but who goes right back to booze when the going gets tough? Or what if a rapist who shames his victim into silence, saying the victim now has to protect the rapists’ reputation by forgiving and forgetting? Forced reconciliation is not Reconciliation, and can be another level of injustice.

We can choose how we feel, we can choose which emotions we give energy to, including pain. Reconciliation starts with God, begins with Christ, and it is our choice to make space for it. Through Christ, we are forgiven our sins as a starting point, and we’re called to imitate God’s forgiveness in our own lives. If we’ve hurt someone, we are called to create a space for healing to the best of our ability, apologize if we can, turn aside from what we’ve done with an interior commitment never to do it again. When we’re hurt, we have to turn away from our pain, we have to say our past isn’t going to affect our future, we have control of our lives and we choose to be free. That doesn’t mean we don’t learn from the past, like the resurrected Christ’s wounds, we are all marked in ways that will not fade and it’s not reasonable to think we’ll forget how they got there. We should forgive as God has forgiven us, reconcile as we’ve been reconciled to God.

Reconciliation means restoring the humanity of the one who hurt us. Just like political movements in this country resort to demonization, we can do it as well. People are were who they are and are who they are. Restoring humanity means accepting that anyone can change, just as Frodo accepted the possibility Gollum could change in the Lord of the Rings. In the second half of the book The Two Towers, Frodo’s recognition of Gollum’s humanity (pardon me, I know they were hobbits) helps him reach out and almost bring him back to Good again. The only reason it doesn’t succeed is that Frodo is forced to break a trust, and Gollum is so wounded he can’t understand, and falls back into his evil feelings.

Without Gollum, Frodo and Sam never would have come close to their goal. Killing Gollum when they first met him means their Quest would have failed. Even though he becomes their adversary, without him the Ring wouldn’t have been destroyed. Reconciliation, even though it wasn’t ultimately successful, meant the journey went forward and Hope was realized.

There are libraries written on the subjects of Reconciliation and Forgiveness; people have talked about this better than I.  I can’t say I’m good at Reconciliation. There are a few old wounds I’ve been able to let go of over the years; I can’t say the road has always been quick and direct. At times, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to live my way to a new reality with people I’ve had differences with, probably more a witness to their grace than mine. I know enough to know that this is the right direction, because I know Reconciliation is what I need, and as far as I can tell, our country needs it as well. Reconciliation and Forgiveness can be seen as a ladder to Heaven: we probably can’t scamper all the way up at once, but it’s important to take one rung at a time and keep going upward.

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One comment

  1. David Eisenstein · · Reply

    Thank you, Fr. Keith, for a well-thought-out, understandable, reasonable treatise on reconciliation and forgiveness. One could tell it was written with love.

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