In his book-length interview The Name of God Is Mercy, Pope Francis retells the story of his encounter with an old woman just after his appointment as an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires. This story helps explain why mercy and forgiveness are the primary focus of his pontificate.
He also recounted this story during his first Angelus as pope in St Peter’s Square:
“An elderly woman approached me, humble, very humble, and over eighty years old. I looked at her, and I said, ‘Grandmother’ — because in our country that is how we address the elderly — ‘do you want to make your confession?’ ‘Yes,’ she said to me. ‘But if you have not sinned. ...’ And she said to me: ‘We all have sins. ...’ ‘But perhaps the Lord does not forgive them.’ ‘The Lord forgives all things,’ she said to me with conviction. ‘But how do you know, Madam?’ ‘If the Lord did not forgive everything, the world would not exist.’ I felt an urge to ask her: ‘Tell me, Madam, did you study at the Gregorian [University]?’, because that is the wisdom which the Holy Spirit gives: inner wisdom focused on God's mercy.”
In The Name of God Is Mercy, Pope Francis explains why the grandmother’s words made such an impression on him, “I was struck by the woman’s words: without mercy, without God’s forgiveness, the world would not exist; it couldn’t exist.” When Pope Francis looks at the world, he sees the vastness of the Earth, the multitudes of peoples, himself and each individual upheld in being by God’s forgiveness. We live and move and have our being in God’s forgiveness.
Change the way you see and live forgiveness
By giving primacy to forgiveness in God’s relationship with creation, Pope Francis is returning to an ancient insight of the Church Fathers. The day after inaugurating the Jubilee of Mercy, he expressed the hope we would change the way we see and live forgiveness. To this end, the Holy Father further developed his insight into the existence of the world depending on God’s forgiveness by quoting from St Ambrose:
“St. Ambrose, in a theological book that he wrote about Adam, takes up the story of the creation of the world and says that each day after God made something — the moon, the sun or the animals — [the Bible] says: ‘God saw that it was good.’ But when he made man and woman, the Bible says: ‘He saw that it was very good.’ St Ambrose asks himself: ‘Why does He say ‘very good’? Why is God so content after the creation of man and woman?’ Because finally he had someone to forgive.” (St Ambrose, The Hexameron).
This doesn’t mean God planned or intended man to be a sinner or wants him to remain a sinner. On the contrary, being omniscient, God knew before Creation the whole history of man’s sin. But more than this, he viewed this history of sin through the love he has for his Beloved Son, true God and true man. Knowing that man would sin, and that his Son would die on the Cross to redeem man, God created the universe as an act of forgiveness.
During the Year of Mercy Pope Francis wants us to see the world and ourselves with new eyes, with minds and hearts alive to the intrinsic primacy of forgiveness. After this Jubilee, Pope Francis hopes Christians will never again make forgiveness the overlooked virtue of Christian life, neglected and ignored in the way we live our lives.
If we adopt Pope Francis’s teaching on the intrinsic primacy of forgiveness in creation, it will transform our understanding and experience of praying the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” becomes essential to how we define ourselves. We’ll see ourselves as made for forgiveness, as oriented to forgiveness at the level of being. We will come to see being unforgiving and merciless as a repudiation of our own nature and the purpose of the universe.
If you don’t forgive you’re not Christian
Pope Francis’s understanding of the primacy of forgiveness explains why he cautions that if we aren’t forgiving, then we are not Christian:
“If you can’t forgive, you are not a Christian,” he said. “You may be a good man, a good woman but you are not doing what our Lord did. What’s more, if you can’t forgive, you cannot receive the peace of the Lord. And every day when we pray the ‘Our Father:’ Forgive us as we have forgiven those. ... It’s a condition.”
It’s not enough to seek forgiveness for our sins from God through the sacrament of confession to be an authentic Christian; we also need to genuinely forgive those who injure and hurt us.
Pope Francis goes so far as to warn that if we don’t forgive others with all our heart, we can’t really benefit from the forgiveness of God — because our lack of forgiveness means we don’t really open our hearts to His forgiveness: “God always forgives, always — but He asks me to forgive others. If I do not forgive, in a sense, I close the door to God’s forgiveness. ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.’”
Why is it so hard to forgive?
Pope Francis would be the last person to encourage the type of “polite” forgiveness we occasionally come across in the Church. When offended or angered there is pressure to say “forget about it” or “there’s nothing to forgive” because it’s expected of Christians. However, such polite forgiveness can often prove itself insincere, leaving the conflict and accompanying resentment unresolved, seriously damaging relationships. Such dishonest “forgiveness,” given out of a sense of politeness, can block us from genuine forgiveness.
Also, Pope Francis isn’t naive about our capacity to express genuine forgiveness, damaged as it is by original sin and concupiscence. As he teaches in his papal bull Misericordiae Vultus, our innate capacity for forgiveness is so often blocked by our refusal to let go of “anger, wrath, violence, and revenge.” In a culture that puts a premium on assertiveness, competition and “not losing face,” there is an inhibition against publicly admitting our need to forgive and be forgiven. Pope Francis’s frequent public requests for forgiveness from Protestant communities and non-Christians is an attempt to break through this taboo.
The Holy Father once posted on Twitter, “It is hard to forgive others. Lord, grant us your mercy, so that we can always forgive.” This papal tweet expresses a simple truth, that we can only genuinely forgive others if we have ourselves experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness.
How do we forgive others?
Over the past three years, Pope Francis has provided a catechesis on how to forgive others that will help us realize his hopes for the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Before anything else, we must ask “for the grace to understand that without mercy a person cannot do a thing, cannot do a single thing, that ‘the world would not exist’” (The Name of God Is Mercy).
Pope Francis also thinks it’s important we distinguish between phony forgiveness and real forgiveness. Forgiveness must not be confused with excusing or overlooking the sinfulness of ourselves and others. Reflecting on the prophet Azariah beseeching the Lord’s forgiveness on Israel (Daniel 3:25, 34-43) Pope Francis pointed out:
“Azariah does not say to the Lord: ‘Sorry, we made a mistake,’ In fact, asking forgiveness is something else, it’s not the same as making an apology. These are two different things: the first is simply asking to be excused, the second involves the acknowledgement of having sinned. Indeed, sin is not simply a mistake. Sin is idolatry, it is worshipping the many idols that we have: pride, vanity, money, the self, wellbeing. This is why Azariah doesn’t simply apologize but begs forgiveness. Forgiveness must be asked sincerely, whole-heartedly — and forgiveness must be given whole-heartedly to those, who have injured us.”
Forgiving our family and friends
Having said this, the daily practice of apologizing for the hurt and upset we cause to others is vital in creating a culture of forgiveness in our homes, parishes and workplaces:
“Every day we do wrong to one other. We have to take account of these mistakes that come from our frailty and our selfishness. But what is required of us now is to heal the wounds that we inflict on each other, immediately to mend the threads that break in family life. If we wait too long, everything becomes more difficult. And there’s a simple secret to healing the wounds and dismissing the charges. It’s this: do not let the day end without asking forgiveness, without making peace between husband and wife, between parents and children, brothers and sisters, between daughter in-law and mother-in-law. If we learn to apologize immediately and grant each other forgiveness, the wounds heal, the marriage is strengthened and the family becomes a more and more solid home that withstands the tremors of our mean behavior, big and small. And long discussions are not needed for this, a caress is enough. One caress, and it’s all over and we start again. But do not finish the day at war. Got it?” (Pope Francis, Nov. 4 general audience)
How many families have been torn apart, parents and children estranged from each other, because of the failure to forgive? How many parishes divided into warring cliques because slights and bruised egos become entrenched dislike and hostility due to a lack of forgiveness?
Forgiving our enemies
And there is the practice of forgiveness that goes beyond forgiving members of our family who we love — forgiving our enemies, the people who intentionally mean us harm in some form or other. How do we forgive our enemies, those who hate us? Pope Francis holds up St. Stephen, the martyr and deacon, as the exemplar of forgiving enemies. St. Stephen shows us that the true disciple of Christ lives his words of forgiveness from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Likewise, Stephen “knelt down and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’” (Acts 7:60). Pope Francis concludes:
“Forgiving, however, is not an easy thing, it is always very difficult. How can we imitate Jesus? From what point do we begin to pardon the small and great wrongs that we suffer each day? First of all, beginning with prayer, as St. Stephen did. We begin with our own heart: with prayer we are able to face the resentment we feel, by entrusting to God’s mercy those who have wronged us: ‘Lord, I ask you for him, I ask you for her.’ Then we discover that this inner struggle to forgive cleanses us of evil, and that prayer and love free us from the interior chains of bitterness.”
As we enter the season of Lent during this Jubilee of Mercy, there is no better time than now to ask Our Lord for the grace to forgive others, especially those who have deeply hurt us, entrusting them to God’s mercy. We are made for forgiveness.
Deacon Nick Donnelly is a contributor to EWTN Radio’s
Celtic Connections program and a columnist with Catholic Voice Ireland.