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The scandal of abuse by Catholic priests has hurt many in the Catholic Church. A Catholic priest offers advice on how forgiveness can bring healing to the wounded in the Church.

Catholic Update


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Forgiveness in Our Church Today:
Key to Healing

By Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.

Each Sunday, and especially on that Sunday we name Easter, the Church celebrates the death and resurrection of the Lord. But there are times in the life of the Church when there seems to be more "death" than "resurrection"—times when dark clouds of sin and evil seem to obscure the bright hope of risen life. We hear news reports of war, domestic violence, senseless murders and random acts of terrorism. And if that were not bad enough, we have learned of terrible crimes committed by ministers of the gospel—the very gospel which teaches us to care for God's little ones.

Even while the Church celebrates the joy of the Resurrection, the Church is not without pain. I think especially of the terrible pain of those who have been abused sexually, perhaps their sexual development arrested, their self-worth diminished and their self-identity shattered. This pain, like a stone dropped into a pond which causes ripples to go forth in ever-widening circles, infects the Church at large. While my own pain as a priest in this present crisis can no way be equated with the pain of those directly harmed by sins and crimes of abuse, my life has been seriously affected. There are things I can no longer say or do as a priest—things I once considered perfectly innocent but which now I see as dangerous or open to misinterpretation. My teaching, my counseling, my ministry are more difficult.—

Many Catholics are feeling something of this pain. Some are shocked and scandalized. How could a priest sit in the confessional and say, "I absolve you from your sins," and then go out and commit terrible sins himself? It seems that the Church itself has been wounded. And there are those in the Church who have been wounded by the Church itself.—

How can the Church help heal this pain? We know that God intends the Church to be an agent of forgiveness and reconciliation. St. Paul wrote the Church at Corinth: "[God] has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18-19).— Each time we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation we are reminded that "God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins" (Rite of Penance #48). But dare we even speak of the ministry of the Church to teach forgiveness when priests of the Church are the ones who have caused the very pain that needs to be forgiven? Can a sinful Church preach forgiveness? Can we forgive the Church?—

What is forgiveness?

Each time the Church celebrates the Eucharist we pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."— But how? What is forgiveness, and how do we go about forgiving?

These questions are currently receiving serious study by many authors in both scientific and religious circles. Interpersonal forgiveness (that is, forgiving an individual who has injured me personally) is even being taught as a course in some colleges and universities. I am not in a position to summarize this research and its relation to issues of justice, repentance, atonement, punishment and reconciliation (all of which deserve our attention), but many of these scholars would agree on the following definition: Forgiveness is the conscious decision to let go of the anger and resentment I feel toward someone who has hurt me.

Forgiveness is, first of all, an act of the will, a decision. We all know something about making decisions. Every day we make hundreds of decisions, some big, some small. Most have few or insignificant consequences. (Should I buy one package of gum or two?) Some are more important and take more preparation and thought. (Should I buy this car or that one?) And sometimes we are faced with truly momentous, life-changing decisions.— (Should I marry Chris?) It probably has been your experience that, ordinarily, the bigger the decision, the more information you need and the more time it takes you to make up your mind.

Acknowledging the pain

The decision to forgive, the decision to let go of the pain and hurt caused by another—or even to begin to let go—is similar to other decisions in that the bigger the injury, the harder it is to decide to let go of the hurt. The more serious the offense, the more time it takes to come to the decision to lay anger aside. We all know that it takes a certain amount of time to feel right about any important decision.— When the hurt is so serious and so deep that we are left traumatized or permanently scarred, we may need professional help to be able to come to forgiveness. But in all cases, forgiveness is the goal, because not forgiving is self-destructive.—

One of the first steps in the journey toward forgiveness is acknowledging our pain, realizing that forgiveness is a process that takes time. I must accept where I am on the journey. I must be aware of the negative feelings that I have in light of the injury. When I am hurt, when something of importance or someone I love has been taken away from me, feelings of anger and resentment proportional to the injury are spontaneous and natural. I have a right to these feelings. However, these feelings of anger and resentment take their toll on the one who carries them. They are a burden. They are injurious to our physical, mental and spiritual health. That is why finding a way through them, and ultimately setting them aside, is so important.

Forgiving the person does not mean that I must (or even should) forget about what was done to me. I have often been told, "Forgive and forget. Let bygones be bygones." I no longer consider this to be good advice. Forgetting about what happened is almost never a good idea. It only enables such crimes to be committed again.—I don't forget. Each time I remember, I can forgive. This is my power over evil.

The decision to forgive the person, the decision to let go of the hurt and pain he or she has caused me does not imply that I condone or excuse what the person did. It does not even demand that the one who offended me is sorry or repents for what he or she did, although forgiveness is more difficult in these cases. Forgiveness is my decision; it does not depend on anyone or anything else. It is my decision to lay aside the burden of hurt and pain. Not to do so only allows the person to continue to harm me. I continue to carry the burden of anger and resentment, a burden which keeps me from getting on with my life.

Reframing the picture

Whenever—we need to make a complex or difficult decision, we usually spend some time and effort getting the facts. When I set out to buy something that costs a considerable amount of money I do some research. I try to find out if the item is worth the price. This information helps me make the decision to buy or not to buy. It helps me intellectually and also emotionally, for when I am informed about the item I can feel good about my decision.— The decision to forgive requires a similar effort to gather the facts.

Contemporary forgiveness studies tell us that an important element of getting the facts is "reframing." The term is based on a metaphor: Changing the frame of a picture can enable us to see the picture in a new way. Reframing refers to the process of seeing the situation, the one committing the offense, and/or ourselves in a new or different way so that we have a better context in which to make the decision to forgive.

A conversation I had recently (while not involving an offense or forgiveness) might illustrate the reframing process. A friend, Jason, learned he could get a promotion at the factory where he was working if only he had a high school diploma. I encouraged him to take the necessary classes to get his GED. Sometimes I would help him with his homework. One night we were studying verb forms (go, went, gone; sing, sang, sung) and Jason asked me, "Gee, Tom, how did you learn all this stuff?" My first reaction was simply to tell Jason that these things come to me naturally because I am brilliant! I write books! But the truth is that I know verb forms because when I was young my mother sat down with me each day after school and helped me with my homework. Until my homework was finished, there was no going out to play. When I told Jason this he replied, "My mother died in giving birth to my little brother and my dad had to hold down two jobs to keep the family together. No one ever helped me with my homework."—

This revelation of a simple fact—a bit of Jason's personal story—reframed the situation.— I saw Jason in a new light and I also saw myself differently. It wasn't Jason's fault he didn't know verbs any more than it was his fault that his mother had died. And it wasn't through any merit of mine that I had the parents that God had given me. I came to a deeper realization that all good things are gift.—

Seeing someone in a larger context can give us an insight into behavior. Reframing is not intended to excuse the perpetrator, but it can allow us to have some insight into what might have caused him to do such a thing. What were the circumstances which led her to act in this way? When I consider my own context and see that all the good I have is gift—and when I am aware of my own sinfulness—I am in a better position to make the decision to forgive. This is the heart of compassion—the ability to "walk in another's shoes."

Grieving a death

One of the things that has helped me reframe the present situation in the Church and helped me come to some degree of forgiveness of the Church is seeing the present scandals in a larger context.— I try to look not only at the crimes but also at the larger issues, the issues of formation, clerical culture, accountability and leadership.—

When I look at the context in which the current scandals took place I see a very different Church from that in which I grew up. When I decided to become a priest 50 years ago, I wanted to be like Bing Crosby in The Bells of St. Mary's. I admired and loved that style of Church and it was into that image of Church that I was ordained. But the Church in which I minister today is not the Church of the 1940s. That Church is gone. And many of us older Catholics are still today grieving its passing.

Of course the Church itself hasn't passed away! But many elements that I formerly thought of as Catholic have passed away. It was only in the years following the Second Vatican Council that I began to realize that the Church exists in a historical context. The Council's very first document reminded us that "the liturgy is made up of immutable elements, divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become pointless" (Constitution on the Liturgy, 21). This is true not only of the Church's worship, but also of many elements of the Church.

Jesus didn't speak Latin or wear an alb and chasuble, but fourth-century Romans did. The apostles didn't call each other "Excellency" or "My Lord" or "Your Grace," but officials of the Middle Ages did. Symbols of respect and allegiance made by serfs to their liege lord such as genuflections, bows, etc., entered the Church through history and culture. Many of the things that we consider Catholic are not "immutable elements divinely instituted" but "elements subject to change." And as these elements change, particularly elements that we have grown fond of and loved, there is a sense of loss.— And as with any death, their passing must be mourned and grieved.

My life as a priest often brings me into contact with the dying and the bereaved.— I have often witnessed how grief can cause people to act in strange ways. Sometimes those grieving will deny that the person has actually died. Often they want to return to a more certain, safer time and to do things "as they have always been done." Sometimes there are struggles for power and control. And grief can be a time of great secrets. (No one wants to admit that Henry drank himself to death or that Martha died of AIDS.)—

As we grieve the passing of many elements in the Church that were once dear to us, I see some of these same grieving behaviors in the Church:—the desire to return to a safer, more certain time (especially in the liturgy), an emphasis on authority and hierarchy, and denial that a sea change has taken place. The context of grieving has helped me to understand some of the things taking place in the Church and has helped me make the decision to forgive.—

While grief and grieving can be painful, and can cause people and institutions to act in unaccustomed ways, they are necessary and essential elements in recovery. After a period of healthy grieving the person can get on with life, often in a new and wonderful way. I think of my own mother. She was wife and mother for 37 years. Then dad died. After grieving her loss, mom began a new, full life and lived as a widow for another 30 years.

Or I think of my own Franciscan family. With declining numbers we realized there are many things we can no longer do. There was (and still is) a sense of loss and grieving.— But there was also the birth of something new. Our Franciscan province has been joined by many dedicated Catholics, both religious and lay, who have brought their own special gifts and life experience to assist us in our ministry to the Church. Positions that were once staffed only by friars are now capably filled by non-friars. They minister in the vocation office, the office of peace and justice, in our high schools, in our outreach to the poor and most recently on the Sexual Abuse Review Board. Yes, something has died in the province, but something more wonderful has been born.

Loss is not new to the Church. I wonder how the Apostles felt when Jesus told them that he was going away, that they were going to lose him! Jesus sees their pain but assures them that "it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you" (Jn 16:7). The Apostles grieve his death and burial. They retreat to a safe place. They fear what might happen to them. But then the risen and glorified Lord appears in their midst and something new and wonderful is born. In order for the Church to be born, they had to let go of what they had. And letting go is never easy.—But it is part of the death that precedes resurrection.

Perhaps in this time of moral outrage, pain, disillusionment, anxiety and grief it is time to let go of what has been so that something else can be born. Might new structures of accountability, education, formation, decisionmaking in the Church better protect all "little ones" not only from sexual assault but also from poverty, fear, war, hunger and all forms of neglect?

Seeing through God's eyes

Our faith can play a crucial role in the process of forgiveness.— One of the things I find most helpful in reframing the injury and the perpetrator is to try to see the situation as God sees it. My faith helps me to realize that both the offender and I are children of the same Divine Parent. I believe that we are both loved. I believe that God can see good in the offender even if I cannot. I think of how human parents love their children. Even children who commit serious crimes and sins are still loved by their parents. How much more must our heavenly Father love us! If I could only see as God sees, I would have no difficulty reframing.

And in this same divine light I must ask if I am so completely innocent. And even if I am innocent in this specific instance, regarding this specific hurt, I am certainly not sinless. When I consider my own sinfulness, I am better able to place the perpetrator of the offense in a new light and better able to decide to forgive.

Jesus, who was completely innocent and sinless, willingly accepted his death and forgave the perpetrators. After Jesus washed the feet of his disciples he said to them, "Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me 'teacher' and 'master,' and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do" (Jn 13:12-15). Forgiveness is an essential for anyone who wishes to follow Christ.

The basis of our Sacrament of Reconciliation is that willingness to try to see things from God's perspective, and to soberly admit that all of us—individually and together as a Church—stand in need of God's healing mercy.

The failure to forgive forces us to carry our hurt and resentment as a burden. We each have limited energy and resources. We need these resources to build the kingdom of justice and reconciliation where God will "gather people of every race, language, and way of life to share in the one eternal banquet with Jesus Christ the Lord" (Eucharistic Prayer for Masses of Reconciliation II). This new world cannot be built by people weighed down with resentment, whose hands are clenched in anger; it can only be built by hands stretched out in forgiveness. And then the dark clouds of sin and death will disappear in the glorious light of the risen Lord.

Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., has a doctorate in sacramental theology from Institut Catholique of Paris and serves on the faculty of St. Meinrad School of Theology. He is a popular writer and lecturer whose latest book is The Sacraments: How Catholics Pray (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

NEXT: Liturgy of the Eucharist (by William H. Shannon)

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