cannot remember a season in the life of our world when the search for
forgiveness has been more apparent. In the United States, travesties
such as the 1864 slaughter of over 200 Arapaho and Cheyennemostly
women and childrenhave been acknowledged and repented. In a formal
presidential apology, the U.S. government has acknowledged wrongdoing
to subjects of unauthorized medical experiments conducted at Tuskegee
in the 1930's.
parts of the world Australians have proclaimed a "Sorry Day" asking
forgiveness for sins against aborigines over the past 200 years, including
the forcible removal of children from their parents. The bishops of
France have apologized for the Church's silence during the Nazi occupation,
declaring, "We confess that this silence was an error," and adding,
"We implore God's forgiveness and ask the Jewish people to hear these
words of repentance." And in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission has worked for the past several years not only to hear confessions
from those who tortured and killed during apartheid, but also in many
cases to grant them amnesty.
In other contexts,
conversations among Muslims, Jews and Christians are going on throughout
the world, symbolizing the desire to overcome past hatreds and heal
old wounds. Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians are continuing
ecumenical dialogues across international and personal boundaries,
replacing a mentality of superiority and suspicion with one of hope
and reconciliation Prompted by communities of faith and by the pope
and the bishops, petitions to declare a moratorium on the death
penalty are being circulated with increasing frequency in the United
States even as the rest of the civilized world has abolished it.
And on the Internet, the U.S. Catholic Conference has created a
Web page highlighting reconciliation and its many implications for
personal and pastoral life (http://www.nccbuscc.org/jubileepledge/).
What do we
make of all this? What response does it require of U.S. Catholics as
a Church and in daily life? And where does the Jubilee Year come in?
years of preparation, we have entered the Jubilee Year. We are coming
to the end of the first millennial Lent and, as a Church, either celebrating
or preparing to take part in a nationwide Day of Reconciliation set
for April 8th. As a graced time, the Jubilee Year provides an opportunity
to stop, to listen and to consider forgiveness. It marks a primary occasionwhat
theologians call a kairos momentto ask what we should forgive,
whom we should forgive (and from whom we should ask forgiveness) and
how we should forgive.
we forgive? The first response to this question is, quite simply, "everything
we can." That answer is a sobering reminder that in extreme cases, we
may initially need to leave forgiveness to God or, perhaps better, hand
forgiveness over to God to hold for us until we are ready and able to
forgive. In some instances, forgiveness may take a long time because
the harm done is so great that simply staying alive and sane takes precedence.
In other instances, we may be able to grant forgiveness immediately,
but as one father acknowledged after forgiving his son's murderers,
"Forgiveness is never easy. Each day it must be prayed for, and struggled
for, and won."
When a Jubilee
Year occurs, one answer to the question, "Forgive what?" receives priority:
A Jubilee calls for forgiveness and, more accurately, release and cancellation
of debt. "Jubilee 2000," the coalition that originated in the United
Kingdom and now includes the U.S.A. and over 60 other countries, calls
for the cancellation of the debt of the world's poorest countries, a
policy we must all take to heart.
Such a "fundamental
option for the poor" connects directly to Jesus' teaching in the New
Testament. There we learn that the original Greek translation of the
Our Father reads "forgive us our debts [the Greek term is opheilema]
as we forgive our debtors." To pray "Forgive us our 'sins'" or "Forgive
us our 'trespasses'" is not wrong, but it is inaccurate. The central
point is that during a year of Jubilee, all debts must be forgiven,
especially those of the poor. No generation, no family, no nation should
be condemned to perpetual debt from one era to the next. Fifty years
is long enough.
to the forgiveness of debt, we can turn to the forgiveness of sins,
trespasses and omissions, the last being "what I have failed to do"
that is cited in the Eucharist when we pray, "I confess..." Concerning
sins and trespasses, the adults among us need to be aware that because
we are helping to form the consciences of the next generation, we need
to teach them which acts are sins, and which are not. One of writer
Brian Friel's most poignant stories, "The First of My Sins," is a seven-year-old
boy's account of his dawning awareness of what actually constitutes
sin in his life. Although his mother continually reminds him that in
his first Confession he must tell the priest he has tormented his older
sister, punched his friends and tried to find out the color of an old
neighbor's "knickers," the child feels no guilt for any of these. Instead,
he realizes that in sharing a secret not his to tellhis knowledge
of a theft committed by an uncle who lives with his familyhe has
been responsible for great harm. His uncle is dismissed from the household,
and the boy knows he has sinnedthough not in the ways his mother
would nameand needs to be forgiven.
we forgive (and from whom should we ask forgiveness)? The answer includes
our families, those with a family-like or intimate connection to us;
the people our people have harmed and, on occasion, ourselves.
One of the core Jubilee teachings in Leviticus 25 reads, "This fiftieth
year you shall make sacred by proclaiming liberty in the land for all
its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when every one of you
shall return to his own property, every one to his own family estate"
(verse 10). In other words, "When the Jubilee arrives, you shall go
home." This teaching has implications for forgiveness, since the experience
of adulthood teaches us that we often have unfinished business with
our families, especially with our parents, children and siblings, that
must be set right. Often, this is the most difficult forgiveness, since
no one can hurt us more than those we have known all our lives. But
a Jubilee is the right time for forgiveness, and we can be comforted
by the realization that whenever we forgive, God is working through
us. As a West Indian phrase puts it, "Nev' mind. God's hand done fix
or confidants. Jubilee is also an opportunity to forgiveand
to ask forgiveness ofthose with whom we have a special, personal
connection. The diaries of Bishop Oscar Romero describe the pain intimates
can cause. In one passage, he writes, "I was subjected to many false
accusations by the other bishops...It has been a bitter day." And on
another occasion, he writes, "I noted in the bishops the same desire
to marginalize me." We can only imagine Romero's pain that the attacks
came from brother bishops who were close to him. We can only hope that
those who inflicted the pain eventually repented and sought forgiveness;
we can only hope to seek and to grant similar forgiveness in our own
people our people have harmed. Alice Walker, the poet and novelist,
has remarked that were she to refuse to forgive racism directed towards
her it would feel "like a stone; a knot in my psychic system" impeding
her getting on with her own life. Her grace in forgiving is a reminder
of the great national sin of our country's white people: our racism.
It is a racism familiar to the Nisei, the Japanese Americans interned
in this, their own country, during World War II, of whom the U.S. government
asked partial forgiveness 50 years later in the form of monetary grants.
It is a reminder of forgiveness still needing expression to the peoples
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States as the 50th anniversary
of those cities' destruction has come and gone. It is also a reminder
of the forgiveness not yet sought by many of the non-black majority
in this nation from the descendants of African peoples who came in chains
to U.S. shores almost 400 years ago.
I wrote above that "on occasion" we ought to forgive ourselves. But
there is a sense in which that is the prerogative of those we have harmed
and often, forgiving ourselves is too easy, too neat. Still, there are
circumstances where we must let go of self-condemnation, especially
when we have received the grace to know ourselves as sinners. We need
to forgive ourselves our tempers, our addictions, our arrogance, our
failureif need beto turn our lives around, to be converted.
we forgive? Some answers are: when it is time, by pilgrimage and by
is time. As we have already seen, Jubilee teaching is quite specific
in answering this question: Forgiveness, notably of debt, is to be granted
whenever a Jubilee is declared, usually every 50 years. We do not, of
course, need to wait that long; but certainly, we ought not wait longer.
Several of the examples already given fulfill this requirement, e.g.,
those associated with World War II and with the Holocaust. The yearly
observances of Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Lent also remind us that
the call to forgiveness is a regular, cyclical call.
Throughout history, pilgrimages have played a key role in the Church's
celebration of a Jubilee Year. Pilgrimages can be undertaken alone,
as a family, as a parish community or as a diocese. In the Jubilee millennial
year 2000, many are planning pilgrimages to Rome, to the Holy Land or
to local diocesan sites designated as Jubilee destinations. We may want
to be part of these journeys; we may also want to visit places that
will provoke not only personal but also social repentance, such as a
shelter for battered women, a food pantry or soup kitchen, a church
of a different ethnic emphasis than our own, an ecumenical center. To
be a pilgrim is not only to journey to a shrine, it is to embark on
a quest for something sacred. In making pilgrimages, we can journey
toward pardon not only for the harm we have caused but also to carry
out the good works we may still need to do.
Among the great treasures of Catholic Christianity are its sacramental
rituals. Forgiveness, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation but also as
a part of Baptism and of Eucharist, has always been a focus of such
ritual, and the renewal of the social as well as the personal dimension
of Reconciliation has been a gift in our time. Reconciliation has several
components: what the Jews call teshuvah or "turning,'' that is,
conversion. Regret and sorrow. Verbal confession. Resolving not to sin
I would suggest
one more component. It is that in receiving forgiveness ourselves we
decide that we will try to live as ministers of forgiveness. In doing
that we may then, perhaps, become sacraments of forgiveness as well,
to our families, to our communities and to our bruised, broken world.*
Harris is a national consultant in religious education and the author
of two books on the Jubilee: Jubilee Time (Bantam) and
Proclaim Jubilee! (Westminster/John Knox Press).
On the morning of April 19, 1995, Bud Welch lost
his beloved 23-year-old daughter in the bombing at the Murrah
Federal Building in Oklahoma City. On the morning of September
5, 1998, he sat down to commiserate with another man who also
had suffered a loss in that bombing: Bill McVeigh, the father
of the man sentenced to die for the deaths of Julie-Marie Welch
and 167 others.
"What I discovered [at that meeting] was a person
who was a bigger victim of the bombing than I am myself," Mr.
Welch told Millennium Monthly. "I travel the whole world
talking about my daughter, Julie, but Bill McVeigh doesn't get
to talk about his son, Tim. Every morning Bill wakes up with
a noose around his neck. He doesn't love Tim any less in spite
of what he did, and his son needs him even more now."
The road from rage to reconciliation is one which,
Mr. Welch says, he simply had to make. "Being filled with anger
is so miserable," says the 60-year-old owner of a gas station
in Oklahoma City. "You get tired of the pain. You have to do
something different." The power of that meeting stays with him.
"Never in my life have I felt closer to God," he says, than
in the two-hour visit with Mr. McVeigh.
But Mr. Welch acknowledges he still has his moments
and his days when he thinks about the senseless loss of life
at the Murrah Building or hears yet another news account of
violence perpetrated against innocent people. That is why he
was so pleased to be invited to address area high school students
following the 1999 shooting deaths at Columbine High School
in Littleton, Colorado. One of the questions he heard most that
evening, he recalls, came from young people who said, in various
ways: "How did you get where you are? I want to be there." The
answer, Mr. Welch believes, is time: "We're all on different
These days, Mr. Welch spends more time on the
road than at his gas station, crisscrossing the country to speak
out against the death penalty. He has testified before countless
committees on the state level and even the U.S. House Judiciary
Committee. He celebrates the good news when legislation is introduced
to abolish the death penalty.
As Bud Welch continues to campaign against the
death penalty, he also walks down the road of reconciliation.
It was revenge and hate, he says, that prompted the bombing
that took his daughter's life. "What good does it to do to repeat
that by executing people?"
by Judy Ball
Lenten season brings with it a deepened focus on reconciliation.
In Rome last month, Pope John Paul II presided over a ceremony
requesting pardon for the sins of the Church and its members
over the centuries. Parishes and dioceses throughout the United
States have been invited to participate in a special day of
reconciliation and healing on April 8 as part of the Jubilee
sanctuary at St. Edward the Confessor Parish in Richmond, Virginia,
a bare tree stands. It is a reminder of the barrenness that
can afflict us when relationships go awry and an invitation
to repair those relationships by making amends. Parishioners
are asked to take steps to "bring life" back to the treeperhaps
phoning an estranged relative, forgiving a small debt or an
old hurt. Such acts are recorded on small note cards and attached
to the tree, giving it the appearance of "buds" and of new life.
As Easter approaches, the tree blooms with hundreds of dangling
ancient tradition of Lent, says Father Ron Ruth, pastor, is
to act: to engage in praying, fasting, almsgiving rather than
"giving up" something. By "reaching out to God and each other
in a new way," he says, we ourselves come to "a new level."*