What it means to forgive

Question: I don’t truly understand what it means to forgive. Recently I read of a person who forgave a man for taking the life of her daughter, but she still was in favor of his going to prison for life. Was that true forgiveness? Are there different stages of forgiveness? 

— Jack L. Barnett, Fort Myers, Fla.

Answer: Forgiveness is a fairly complex reality. It certainly does not mean absolving people from their evil deeds without any conversion of heart on their parts. Nor does it mean avoiding steps to ensure that the bad behavior does not occur again. Forgiveness, in essence, means ridding oneself of the burden of being the ultimate judge of a person or a situation. It means recognizing that one has only a limited picture of the evil in question and that only God knows the full circumstances. Forgiveness, then, means letting God be the judge. 

God is infinitely merciful and forgiving, but God’s forgiveness is never unconditional. It requires that the sinner undergo a change of heart and a modification of life. In the Gospels, Jesus’ practice of forgiveness is invariably followed by the words, “But go sin no more.” Forgiveness does not mean sticking one’s head in the sand. The woman you mention who forgave her daughter’s murderer, but still wanted him to go to jail for life, was not being inconsistent. Having the man go to jail is not (or should not be) an act of vengeance, but a means of protecting society from one who has grievously offended. 

You ask if there are different stages of forgiveness. Experience tells us that there are. The first stage is always shock, horror, fear, anger at the one who has perpetrated some offense. This is followed by a process of protecting oneself and others from the evil which has been done, so that it does not continue (this may mean the offender goes to jail, or to counseling, or is kept at a distance). Next comes restoring peace to one’s soul by being reconciled (if possible) to the person in question, or at least being peaceable to him or her. If reconciliation is not possible, then one at least tries to pray for the offender. As I suggested earlier, the process of forgiveness is complete when one relieves oneself of the burden of being judge and recognizes God as the ultimate judge. 

Wearing rosaries 

Question: Please comment on the practice of wearing a rosary as a necklace. As a deacon, I was asked to give my opinion on this by a young parishioner, and I told him I did not approve of it as the rosary is an instrument of prayer. Another parishioner countered that we wear crosses and crucifixes, so why would a rosary be any different. Does the Church have a position on this? 

— Name and address withheld

Answer: The Church has no opinion on the matter of wearing a rosary around one’s neck. It seems to me that the practice has to be interpreted in personal contexts. I know a few very devout Catholics who wear rosaries as a demonstration of their faith, and there is surely nothing wrong with this.  

Wearing a rosary as a fashion statement is certainly in a different category. It is hardly to be recommended. Making the wearing of a rosary part of pop-culture paraphernalia — without any statement of faith involved — is certainly not acceptable. In a multicultural and multireligious society, it is important that everyone be respectful of the religious symbols of others. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.