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Jubilee Forgiveness
by Maria Harris

I 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 Cheyenne—mostly women and children—have 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.

Global activity

In other 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?

After three 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 occasion—what theologians call a kairos moment—to ask what we should forgive, whom we should forgive (and from whom we should ask forgiveness) and how we should forgive.

Forgiving: what

What should 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.

Having attended 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 tell—his knowledge of a theft committed by an uncle who lives with his family—he has been responsible for great harm. His uncle is dismissed from the household, and the boy knows he has sinned—though not in the ways his mother would name—and needs to be forgiven.

Forgiving: whom

Whom should 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.

Our families. 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 the thing."

Our intimates or confidants. Jubilee is also an opportunity to forgive—and to ask forgiveness of—those 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 lives.

Those 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.

Ourselves. 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 failure—if need be—to turn our lives around, to be converted.

Forgiving: how

How shall we forgive? Some answers are: when it is time, by pilgrimage and by ritual.

When it 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.

By pilgrimage. 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.

By ritual. 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 again.

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.*

Maria 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).



Bud Welch 

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 schedules."

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



Healing Tree

This 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 Year celebration.

In the 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 tree—perhaps 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 "leaves."

The 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."*



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