How to forgive

Question: I don’t understand how mere humans are supposed to forgive everyone everything but we are taught that God/Jesus only forgives us if we are repentant. How are we supposed to be more forgiving than he is? 

Nancy, via email

Answer: I am not sure where you learned that the Lord Jesus only forgives if we are repentant. This is quite contrary to what he did at the cross. With the exception of John, Mother Mary and several other women, we collectively mocked him, scorned him and thought nothing of his sufferings. Yet, in our most unrepentant moment he said, “Father forgive them.” 

Scripture also says, “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us ... while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Rom 5:8-10). 

Perhaps you have in mind the judgment we will face. And many do think of our Last Judgment as God withholding forgiveness. However, the Lord makes it clear: “Answer them: As I live — oracle of the Lord God — I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Ez 33:11). 

Thus our Last Judgment, is not about God’s desire to condemn, or his refusal to forgive. Rather, the judgment in question is more about our final answer to the invitation of God to receive his offered mercy and accept the values of his kingdom. There are some who mysteriously reject the Kingdom and its values. Without pleasure, God accepts the final and lasting choice of some to dwell apart from him. 

For us, forgiveness should not be seen so much as an imposed obligation, but as a gift to seek and receive from God. Forgiveness does not always mean we can go on in close relationships with people who may cause us great harm. It does not always mean that there should be no consequences for sin. Rather, forgiveness is letting go of the need to change the past. It is a gift from God that helps us to put down the weight of anger, resentment and the desire for revenge that can consume and destroy us. Forgiveness is for us, not against us. 

Grammar question

Question: When God’s name is mentioned in the prayers of Mass, the plural have (instead of has) is used. Why? 

Beverly, via email

Answer: The grammatical answer is that the word “God” in these prayers is in the vocative case, rather than being the subject of the verb “have.” The actual subject of the verb in these prayers is either “who” or “you” as in, “O God, who ... ” or “O God, you ... ” 

Your question implies that the verb “have” is only a plural verb. It is not. It can also be the first and second person singular (e.g., I have, you have). Thus, the sentence “O God, you have every perfection” requires the second person singular form of the verb. The form “has” would not work. 

The difficultly to our ears is that the formal address “O God who ...” is rare in English today. Normally “who” is a third person singular as in “Who has it?” But we can also use “who” in the second person singular if we supply a vocative, as in, “It is you, who have the answer.” And this is what we do in the prayers. We supply the vocative “O God.” Thus the verb must be “have.” 

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.