The Power of Forgiveness: How Lives Are Changed and Transformed

Pardon does a wealth of good for hurting souls.

On Dec. 27, 1983, Pope John Paul II met with Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish man who attempted to assassinate the Pope on May 13, 1981, in prison. ‘Forgiveness is the restoration of freedom to oneself,’ Pope St. John Paul II taught.
On Dec. 27, 1983, Pope John Paul II met with Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish man who attempted to assassinate the Pope on May 13, 1981, in prison. ‘Forgiveness is the restoration of freedom to oneself,’ Pope St. John Paul II taught. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano/National Catholic Register)

“When I was a little girl, my father took me aside one day and said: ‘I want you to know something very special about your mother. I want you to understand who she is,’” Peggy Clores told the Register. It was then that Peggy learned the strength and faith that were central to her mother’s life — and the power of forgiveness.

Clores’ mother, Yvette Assael, a Greek Jew, survived the Auschwitz concentration camp along with two older siblings; their parents  were killed in the Nazi death camp.

Yvette met James Lennon, an Irish-Catholic World War II sergeant, when he was sent to help resettle the Greek Jews after they were liberated. Four years after Yvette’s family was torn from their home in Greece, Yvette and James married in 1947. Yvette subsequently converted to Catholicism. 

“My mother found it overwhelmingly painful to remain in Greece, so my parents moved to London to begin their new life, before emigrating nine years later to America,” Clores recalled.

“One day, coming out of a London bakery, they spotted a beggar. Knowing the agony of starvation well, my mother reached into the bakery bag and walked toward him. Then, all at once, she stopped ‘dead in her tracks.’ Her face turned white.”

 “Yvette, what’s wrong?” her husband asked. She stood frozen and just stared at the man.

 Her eyes filled with tears; and, finally, resolutely, she walked over and handed the man a piece of bread.

 “My father said they continued walking home, and, eventually, she spoke,” Clores related.

 “I recognized that man. He was one of the Nazis in Auschwitz,” she said.

 “At this revelation, my father welled up over what he’d just witnessed my mother do in spite of the trauma of the moment.”

Clores explained how her mother told her father: “I was torn between pity for the agony of his starvation and the evil we all endured from him. I then realized that if I didn’t forgive him, if I didn’t somehow find the strength to forgive all of them, they would then have taken the rest of my life from me.”

“My father had tears again as he told me this story, knowing it would help me understand my mother and, ultimately, life,” Clores said. “My mother set the standard for me on forgiveness, which I would draw from over and over again in my life, to yield the freedom and peace that only Christ can give. I thought often of her words and pray that they will give others the grace to forgive the unforgivable: ‘If I don’t forgive them, they will have taken the rest of my life from me.’”

Clores’ mother is an extraordinary example of forgiveness — and her story offers both an example to those dealing with their own ability to forgive and insights in how to take to heart Our Lord’s words, to “forgive those who have trespassed against us.” 

As Pope St. John Paul II said, “Forgiveness is the restoration of freedom to oneself: It is the key held in our own hand to our prison cell.” 

John Paul II himself exhibited the truth about forgiveness. As Bishop Robert Barron reflected, “Did John Paul II express love in a heroic way? He forgave the man who tried to kill him; no further argument need be made.”

As society seems to become more sensitive to injury and insult, forgiveness is getting more attention in modern culture — and its own area of therapy: forgiveness therapy. Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons and Robert Enwright, Ph.D., share, in Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, research on substantially alleviating depression and anxiety, substance abuse, marital and family problems, rage, eating disorders and even suicidal thoughts through forgiveness.  

Fitzgibbons believes more mental-health professionals are seeing the benefit of forgiveness therapy (FT), but it’s still vastly underused and desperately needed, he told the Register. With alarming rates of teen and young-adult depression, anger and suicide, Fitzgibbon hopes for more school and adolescent counselors to utilize forgiveness techniques.   

Expressing anger has traditionally been viewed as the best response, but psychologically there’s no evidence of positive change, and it can even lead to more anger and resentment, as Habits for a Healthy Marriage: A Handbook for Catholic Couples by Fitzgibbons explains. FT, however, does resolve anger from both present and past hurts.  

Do Unto Others

While not denying mistreatment or injustice, FT emphasizes mercy, according to Habits for a Healthy Marriage. A core facet is coming to see the other person as imperfect, like anyone else, and as someone loved by God in spite of what they have done. Reminding oneself of times we needed to be forgiven can help bring some understanding. It’s often a gradual but effective approach, complemented by prayer and the sacraments.

Marriage problems often stem from underlying anger, unconsciously misdirected. In Habits for a Healthy Marriage, Fitzgibbons shows how anger from different stages of life can be resolved through the use of forgiveness: “Looking at the past to understand the present usually leads to the realization that people usually do not deliberately inflict hurt. Even those who are deliberately cruel have often suffered some type of early trauma.” At the beginning stage of forgiveness, repeating, “I want to forgive him/her for the good of our marriage, but I don’t feel like forgiving him/her” can begin to reduce anger by emphasizing the decision to forgive, Fitzgibbons advises. 

Forgiveness is difficult without God’s grace. When spouses feel so betrayed that forgiveness seems impossible, Fitzgibbons recommends in his book that those with faith aim for spiritual forgiveness. Here the person might think, “I am powerless over my anger, sadness and fear and want to turn them over to God.” At the same time, it’s crucial for the offender to express remorse regularly, ask for forgiveness, and show confidence that he/she is going to be able to resolve the conflicts that lead to conflict. 

Practicing forgiveness as a virtue makes it a little easier to forgive the next time. “As you’ve walked the path before, you get better at walking it,” Fitzgibbons told the Register. “Even when there’s a trigger, you know you can get beyond it. It’s a lifelong process. We’re all imperfect people.”

Accomplishing forgiveness in a marriage brings significant improvement in depression, anger, posttraumatic stress symptoms, anxiety, finding meaning in suffering, marital satisfaction and even adolescent children’s perception of parental functioning. FT also equips couples to work on the emotional conflicts that predisposed their marriage to conflict. Even physical health is impacted. Chronic unforgiveness appears to erode health, whereas forgiving responses may enhance well-being, as a study from researchers at Hope College’s Psychology Department discovered.


The Trauma of Abortion

Therapists who work with post-abortive women find these women often carry the burden for years without any attempt to forgive themselves. Counselor Terry Hall, an evangelical Christian, works to mitigate feelings of guilt and shame by pointing out common tactics of abortion providers, as she shares on her website. “These women are never shown an ultrasound, the very thing that would bring about a maternal instinct. They’re not offered true help. So these women didn’t make a genuine ‘choice’ as much as they were deceived.” Former abortion workers as well as fathers who insisted on the abortion carry enormous burdens, too, sometimes believing they have no right to be forgiven.

Sydna Massé, Christian author of Her Choice to Heal: Finding Spiritual and Emotional Peace After, emphasizes God’s healing love in forgiving oneself. “There is no sin greater than God’s capacity to forgive. His forgiveness hinges on one thing — our confession of our sin,” she told the Register via email. 

Post-abortive herself, Massé recalls, “If God had forgiven my sin of abortion, he was requiring that I personally forgive the younger version of myself to realize his peace. It helped to realize that the younger Sydna no longer existed. The bitterness and anger I was holding prohibited any harmony in my life. Forgiveness was the only way to peace. I asked God for help to forgive the woman I had been when I made that choice. I was able to release myself from that prison of regret.”

[Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know has suffered from an abortion, there are resources available, including Rachels Vineyard.]

Forgiveness Isn’t Optional

Father Mike Schmitz, director of youth ministry for the Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota, has reminded his flock on his podcast that forgiving isn’t just advice; it’s a command: Jesus’ teachings emphasize the obligation to forgive others. However, some situations are so painful they are humanely impossible to forgive. These offenses cause such woundedness that forgiveness is a lifetime journey. “When Jesus taught us to pray the Lord’s Prayer, he was laying out a path to freedom,” points out Father Schmitz. “When you forgive, the one who hurt you is released from their debt to you, and you are released from the pain so you can move on. At the heart of forgiveness is freedom.”

In various settings, including here, Marietta Jaeger has shared her transformation after the abduction and murder of her daughter. In forgiving the unforgivable, she came to feel mercy for the one who hurt her so grievously. “I knew that God loved the man who murdered my daughter,” she said.

After the husband of Diane (not her real name, to protect her identity) walked out on her and their little boy, the betrayal, sadness and anger were overpowering. “Only through years of conversion, and knowing I had to forgive, could I even pray to begin trying to forgive. It wasn’t one incident; the neglect continued throughout my son’s childhood. He would lie and blame me, telling people I made it impossible for him to see our son. This man was not asking for forgiveness. But I had to forgive him. Hearing about other people’s radical forgiveness in extreme situations motivated me. It took constant prayer, the sacraments, offering up and spiritual direction. It’s still the challenge of my life.” 


Past Hurt, Present Healing

A vital part of harnessing the power of forgiveness is to recognize that oftentimes the roots of one’s brokenness run deep into one’s past. Studies have shown, according to Fitzgibbons, that 80% of adult disorders such as rage, substance abuse, depression and marital conflicts are extensions of adolescent conflicts. For example, a husband who experienced emotional distance with his father growing up, besides hurting him, resulted in his being emotionally distant in his marriage. In FT, the wife was led to see the wounded little boy that is now acting out learned behavior. In coming to be more empathetic and realizing her husband’s actions are in part a result of his wounded childhood, she is able to feel less hurt and angry and eventually forgive him; and therapy also helps the husband to forgive his distant father.

FT can be effective with substance abuse, too. One study compared traditional rehabilitation techniques with FT and found depression significantly lessened by FT; plus, it gave these people a tool to deal with past injustices. With traditional rehab, those who have become newly healed of their addiction usually fear relapsing, a fear that is far less common after FT, as people find they no longer needed to self-medicate.

Deacon Steve Greco of Spirit Filled Hearts Ministry writes in Miracles Through Forgiveness of the need to pray for the grace to forgive. In his book, he points to the use of mercy in the call to forgive. A primary tactic of the devil is to have people believe they are not forgiven by God and that reasons for not forgiving those who have hurt them are valid. “The enemy wants to control our minds,” he writes. Also in the book, Deacon Greco urges the faithful to use the weapons God has given them to win this battle, including surrendering to Jesus; asking the Holy Spirit to help; using prayer and praise, remembering that the devil has to flee when we praise God; and frequent Communion and confession.

According to Father Schmitz, what people must recognize is that forgiveness is integrally connected with the universal human desire to achieve justice for wrongs committed, but that is not God’s way. 

“Justice would demand that they give you what they owe you,” he has explained. “Forgiveness is when you make the decision to release them from their debt.”

Patty Knap writes from Long Island, New York. This story was updated after posting.