Philip Kosloski graduated from the University of Saint Thomas in Minnesota with a Bachelor’s in Philosophy and Catholic Studies and completed his Master of Arts degree in Theology with the Augustine Institute. He is a writer and author of In the Footsteps of a Saint: John Paul II’s Visit to Wisconsin. He blogs at philipkosloski.com and writes to help all Catholics master the art of prayer by conquering the practical obstacles that prevent a fruitful relationship with Christ.
The fifth spiritual work of mercy is one that will greatly prepare us to embrace the Jubilee Year of Mercy: “to forgive offenses willingly.” This particular work of mercy is one of the hardest, as it requires a great deal of humility to perform it.
Before we look at the practical side of this work of mercy, let us see what Jesus had to say about forgiveness:
“Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22)
Jesus instructs His apostles to forgive “seventy times seven,” which is believed by scholars to mean “without limit.” This forgiveness is in stark contrast to the “limitless” vengeance Lamech proclaimed in Genesis:
“If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4:24)
Jesus proclaims that mercy and forgiveness are attributes of His followers and not childish vengeance.
Often we are like Peter and try to make up excuses as to why we shouldn’t forgive someone. We might think that we have forgiven them already and that they do not deserve to be forgiven again. Or we may say to ourselves that they are such a terrible person and did such a terrible sin that they are somehow unforgivable.
However, when we start to limit our own forgiveness of others we become hypocrites. We can’t forgive someone for a crime they committed against us, but then we expect to be forgiven all of our sins in the Sacrament of Confession.
Jesus reminds us that, “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 7:2).
If we want Jesus’ mercy to be limitless for us, should we not have boundless mercy towards others?
Forgiveness Requires Humility
One of the main reasons why it is hard to forgive is because it requires humility. When someone sins against us, we are hurt and that hurt can easily turn into pride. We place ourselves above the person who harmed us and believe they should be the ones who grovel in humility. In a way we believe that it is a display of weakness to forgive someone.
This is true. Forgiveness requires a person to become weak and vulnerable. It goes against all of our natural inclinations and means that we have to let go of the offense; we cannot hold on to it.
The ultimate display of humility and forgiveness occurred on the cross when Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
The key word in this work of mercy is “willingly.” Not only must we forgive those who have wronged us, but we must do so on our own accord. We cannot forgive reluctantly, wishing that we hadn’t forgiven someone. It must come from a willing heart.
For example, when Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square, he forgave his attacker at the first moment he could. In fact, he decided to forgive his assassin during the ambulance ride to the hospital! His initial reaction was not one of rage or vengeance, but one of mercy and forgiveness.
This is the type of heart that we need to cultivate; a heart constantly open to forgiveness. Our hearts must not hold on to offenses for years and years, but be ready to forgive immediately after someone hurts us.
The greatest way we can cultivate a forgiving heart is devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He is Mercy itself and teaches us the perfect and boundless way of forgiveness. Let us rest our head upon His heart and listen to the sweet rhythm of Mercy.
O Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Make My Heart Like Unto Thine!