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Mercy and forgiveness foster reconciliation

Opinion

Perhaps the three most important words that children can learn are ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’, but the attitudes behind these words – respect, gratitude and forgiveness – only develop when they are lived out in the family, in the school, in the parish, and in society at large.

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Pope Francis never ceases to remind us of the abundant love that God has for each one of us. ‘God never tires of forgiving,’ he tells us.  ‘The door of the Father’s house always remains open.’ No matter how many times we might fall short of the mark in living our Christian life, God is always there to welcome us back, to give us another chance, to heal our wounded spirits, to renew our hope. In a recent Sunday gospel we heard Peter asking Jesus how many times he ought to forgive. (Peter thought that he was being very generous in suggesting seven times because the Jewish law only required that a person be forgiven three times.) Imagine Peter’s surprise when Jesus suggested ‘seventy times seven’ as the appropriate number!

Another Gospel passage had an even more amazing proposition for the followers of Jesus: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you. (Lk 6:27) Surely that was well beyond what could be expected of any normal human being?

What Jesus wanted to teach us was that God’s love is without limits and is filled with forgiveness and mercy. Forgiveness is a moment of grace that can transform a heart of stone into a heart of flesh, first of all because it is a gift received from another, and secondly, because it recognises the promise and potential in the person who has, for whatever reason, ‘missed the target’ by causing hurt and distress to an individual or to a community.

The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the best known and most loved gospel stories. The younger son has taken advantage of his father’s goodness and has no regard for his brother. He seeks a life of self-indulgence and pleasure and eventually finds himself in a lamentable situation. Ashamed and repentant he decides to return home. Instead of recrimination he finds himself swept up in his father’s loving arms and welcomed back into the family with a banquet and rejoicing.

Instances of forgiveness in our own lives may not be so dramatic but they are vital in helping us to grow as disciples of Jesus. Every time we offer forgiveness to someone who has offended us we are reflecting the love that God has already shown us and every time we accept forgiveness from another we are acknowledging that we need that love to build a just and peaceful society.

There is no such thing as a sin that does not harm anyone. It always impacts on our relationships – even if indirectly – and causes damage to ourselves by letting resentment fester or anger burn or selfishness grow. The Church offers us the sacrament of Reconciliation so that it can accompany us on our journey of conversion and offer advice and hope on our way. Pope Francis tells us not to be afraid to go to the sacrament, even if we have been away from it for a long time. Jesus will be there, ready to welcome us just as the father welcomed the prodigal son, only too willing to release us from the weaknesses that bind us and to bring us healing and freedom and above all the knowledge that we are totally loved.

It is not only with others that we need to be reconciled. We are also in need of ecological conversion, listening to and thinking deeply about the world that God has given us as a gift for our common home. We have been entrusted to be good stewards of the earth’s natural resources and to care for its many forms of life.

As Christians we are constantly called to conversion, to consider, judge and arrange our life according to the holiness and love of God revealed to us in Jesus. The ultimate purpose of the sacrament of Reconciliation is to enable this to happen.

Dr Jenny O’Brien is manager, Office for Worship.

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