Psychologists are now learning what Catholic priests have always known about the power of forgiveness -- it offers healing to both the victim and the offender. Our Sunday Visitor talked with two Catholics who have suffered greatly at the hands of another but still found the courage to offer forgiveness.
A horrifying crime
Brian Muha was the kind of son who gave his mother flowers to show his love. A few days before returning to Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, for summer classes, the 18-year-old ordered a bouquet of white, pink-tipped roses to be delivered to his mother on May 31, 1999. "I know Mom will be missing me," he told his older brother, Chris.
Rachel Muha was never able to thank her son for the roses because Brian, along with one of his roommates, Aaron Land, was murdered the day the bouquet was delivered.
During the early hours of May 31, at least two men, who were strung out on drugs, broke into Brian's Steubenville apartment, beat Brian and Aaron and then took them by gunpoint to a remote hillside along U.S. Route 22, near Steubenville just across the border into Pennsylvania.
Brian and his roommate were ordered to walk up the hillside where they were shot to death. Their killers said that they needed to know what it felt like to end someone's life. Two men were convicted in connection with the heinous crimes. A third entered into a plea agreement in exchange for his testimony.
Turning from hate
"I wanted to hate those men. They took, hurt and then ... killed my Brian. And they broke my Chris' heart," Rachel Muha told OSV.
Though tempted, the Westerville, Ohio, resident would not let herself hate -- the cost would be too high. She thought: "I can't hate. If I hate, I won't go to heaven. I will never see Our Lord, or my Brian, again. If I hate, what will that do to Brian's brother? What kind of future will I be sentencing him to?"
During the search for Brian, Muha said she continuously prayed the Our Father. When she realized that everyone thought he was dead, she found herself mentally tripping on the passage: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."
"I would ask myself, 'What is this forgiveness that God asks of us?' The answers came: Forgiveness doesn't mean you are excusing someone, understanding what they did or that you think they shouldn't be punished. To forgive someone means to refuse to harbor any ill will -- any bitterness, hatred, anger or revenge toward someone who has hurt you -- to have goodwill toward them. This is an act of the will, not of the feelings."
Muha refused to let the killers' hatred transform her. Even before Brian's body was found, Muha publicly forgave his killers. She did so again at their trial. "I had to say, out loud, that I forgive these men," she said. "God gave me a great gift at that moment -- something I can only call the 'peace of heaven,' in the midst of great suffering."
Forgiving Brian's murderers is an ongoing process for Muha. "Temptations to be angry, hate and want revenge come. I fight those temptations by picturing Brian, standing next to Our Lord. I know they both want me to forgive."
Advice for healing
For those grappling with forgiveness and anger, "I try to tell people not to ask 'why,' ask 'what?'; 'What do I do now?'; 'What is best for those around me and for the sinners themselves?'" said Muha who has been vocal about her disapproval of the death penalty.
Creating a memorial in honor of the loved one can help further the healing process. The Muhas purchased the house that Brian and Aaron were living in when they died and named it Divine Mercy House. "Students attending Franciscan University, especially those who are priests or studying for the priesthood, have been invited to live there free of rent -- with the promise that they will pray for the three men, us, and everyone in the neighborhood."
Stung by silence
Arriving at the healing stage comes differently for everyone. Every day extreme physical pain reminds burn victim Michael Nolte, 51, of Leawood, Kan., of the tragic day he saw another man burn to death.
On May 22, 2003, after being pulled over by a police officer for driving too long in the left lane, Nolte sat in state trooper Michael Newton's Ford Crown Victoria while the officer issued a warning. Behind them was a pickup truck driver with his cruise control set at 65 mph and his leg propped up on the dashboard. As he reached for his sliding sunglasses, he plowed into the rear of the parked patrol car.
The Ford's faulty fuel tank exploded, engulfing Nolte and Newton in flames. Nolte suffered third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body. Though two passers-by pulled Nolte through the window, they couldn't reach Newton and he died. He was 25 years old.
The truck driver who caused the accident never reached out to either family. This haunted Nolte for two years after the accident. "I was pretty convinced that this guy was just an insensitive jerk. He obviously wasn't a person that cared about the destruction he helped cause," Nolte told OSV.
Against the advice of friends, Nolte was determined to meet with the man. He was compelled to do so by the Prayer of St. Francis, which teaches "seek first to understand, then be understood." Nolte hoped a meeting with the truck driver would help him know what the man was thinking both at the time of the wreck and presently.
He had only planned to meet with the man for an hour. "I wanted him to tell me the consequences caused by his choice to drive so carelessly; how had it impacted his family, his own psyche? Then after 30 minutes, I was going to share with him how his choice caused consequences in the life of my family."
Instead, the two ended up talking for fours hours. Nolte learned that the man had wanted to apologize, but was told by his lawyers not to make contact.
Three powerful words
Nolte had approached the meeting with one mind-set and left with quite another. "Getting acquainted with the man allowed me to not just 'walk in his shoes', but to see his heart. Most importantly, I realized his family had suffered, too."
Although Nolte was convinced of the man's remorse, he didn't feel compelled to actually use the formality of forgiving words until he was walking out the door. "I asked him to take my hand and look me straight in the eye. I said, 'Listen to the words I am going to tell you.' I looked at him and said, 'I forgive you for what you have done to me.'"
The man fell on Nolte's shoulder and sobbed "thank you" repeatedly. Nolte was shocked at the reaction. He said, "I used to think the only words that were critical to life were, 'I love you' and 'I'm sorry.' Now I know the power of the words, 'I forgive you.'"
Nolte, determined to move forward with his life and turn the tragedy into something of value to others, has signed with Five Star Speaker's Bureau and is traveling as a professional speaker. "I'm so grateful to God that I am able to finally make something 'right' out of something so tragically 'wrong.' "
For him, getting to know the perpetrator helped the forgiveness process along. "I have found that with knowledge comes some understanding. With understanding comes acceptance and hopefully...ultimately... forgiveness."
Lori Hadacek Chaplin writes from Iowa.