In the Christmas season of 1983, Time magazine put a startling picture on its cover. It showed a prison cell. Two men facing each other sat on plastic chairs. One wore a white robe. The other wore a blue sweater, jeans and running shoes. Time reported the story this way:
"Last week in an extraordinary moment of grace, the violence in St. Peter's Square was transformed. In a bare, white-walled cell in Rome's Rebibbia prison, John Paul tenderly held the hand that was meant to kill him. For 21 minutes the pope sat with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca. The two talked softly. Once or twice Agca laughed. The pope forgave him for the shooting. At the end of the meeting, Agca either kissed the pope's ring or pressed the pope's hand to his forehead in a gesture of respect.
"What did they talk about? 'That,' said the pope as he left the cell, 'will have to remain a secret between him and me. I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust.' "
Not only did the pope forgive Ali Agca, he also asked the Italian government for clemency if Italian law permitted it. In the 2000, the Italian government pardoned Ali Agca and released him to Turkish authorities, who imprisoned him for his murder of a journalist there.
This widely known event is a contemporary application of Christ's words to Peter on the issue of forgiveness: Peter approached Jesus and asked him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said, "I do not say to you seven times, but 70 times seven" (Mt 18:21-22, RSV).
In Jewish thinking, seven is a perfect number, but Jesus uses an exaggerated multiple of seven to teach that forgiveness is serious business and ought to be a permanent feature of Christian life.
No matter how often one is injured, nor how grievously, we should be prepared to forgive the one who harmed us. In the Our Father, Jesus teaches that the mercy we seek for our own sins is in proportion to the mercy we mete out to others. "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."
Letting go of the hurt
Over the course of our lives, most of us have been challenged to forgive others -- those who have treated us unfairly, who fail to understand our approach to life, who dismiss us as being beneath them.
Beyond these everyday injuries are assaults such as incest, marital infidelity by a spouse, the murder of a loved one, bodily mutilation due to a drunken driver, liars who ruin our reputation, financial cheaters who impoverish us and so many other personal indignities that can be inflicted upon us.
If it were not for the stories of heroic survivors who did listen to Christ's "70 times seven" solution, we might wonder if this is an impossible demand.
These injured ones discover that holding a grudge, wallowing in bitterness or refusing to forgive only makes matters worse. Holding onto anger and hatred corrodes the soul and leads to despair. Their only hope for peace and liberation is through God's grace mediated through the Church and the sacraments -- and a little bit of help from others.
Forgiveness is not an option; it is a necessity. The act of forgiveness offered in a reconciling meeting, if such is possible, is the first step. If you have been deeply hurt, it takes time for the healing which forgiveness initiates. It involves thinking forgiving thoughts and embracing forgiving love for the one who hurt you.
You must not reduce the offender to the sin alone. Each person is a child of God and greater than any actions committed. You need to pray for the grace of God to heal you and the other person. Believe it or not, you will heal better if you can help the other person to avoid hurtful behavior. The "seventy times seven" is a long journey for many.
United with the cross
Pope Benedict's first encyclical is titled Deus Caritas Est ("God is Love"). Forgiveness is an essential aspect of love as manifested in Christ's cross. His words from the cross began with forgiving those who had put him there. Next he forgave the penitent thief. The lesson for us is that we join our suffering to Christ's on the cross both to be healed ourselves and to help redeem the one who offended us. When we partake in the drama of salvation at Calvary, we are drawn into the divine orbit of the crucified Christ. We behold the world from the cross and in some mysterious way our hurting hearts begin to beat with joy and love and the burden we carried seems to move away gradually.
You may say, "I have only little hurts to forgive. Maybe I do not need so grandiose a solution." A little offense unforgiven in the beginning can become a big one in the end. Lent is the perfect time to shed our stubbornness and forgive our offenders and be willing to ask forgiveness for our own trespasses. You will be glad you tried the "seventy times seven" solution.
Father Alfred McBride is the author of "Essentials of the Faith: A Guide to the Catechism" (OSV, $12.95).