Forgiveness: What it is and what it is not

Forgiveness: What it is and what it is not
Pope John Paul II shakes hands with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in a Rome prison Dec. 27, 1983. Exactly 31 years after St. John Paul II personally forgave him for shooting and trying to assassinate him, Agca returned to the Vatican with a bunch of white roses and laid them at the late pope's tomb. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via EPA)

Pope John Paul II shakes hands with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in a Rome prison Dec. 27, 1983. Exactly 31 years after St. John Paul II personally forgave him for shooting and trying to assassinate him, Agca returned to the Vatican with a bunch of white roses and laid them at the late pope’s tomb. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via EPA)

Second in a series of articles on forgiveness in the Jubilee Year of Mercy

The first step on the journey toward forgiveness is to define it, understand it. I believe that people will forgive only when they understand it well. So what is forgiveness? Webster’s defines forgiveness as “letting go of resentment.” Forgiveness is simply that! The renowned family therapist Dr. Daniel Gottlieb wrote, “Forgiveness has nothing to do with reconciliation or even holding a perpetrator harmless. Forgiveness is the process of giving up resentment or anger toward another person.” It is a refusal by the injured person to be led by hostility, resentment and rage.

Forgiveness does not deny the anger and pain one feels. However, forgiveness channels these natural emotional reactions away from destructive tendencies — hostility, resentment and revenge. Forgiveness releases the offended one(s) from living the past in perpetual resentment toward a future of healing and reconstruction.

Forgiveness begins as a moral choice — a conscientious and willing choice (and process) in which the injured person is able to recognize an injustice and has chosen willingly and without coercion to respond with mercy rather than what could be justifiable retribution. In the end, forgiveness is concerned with the overall good of human relationships and interaction.

As a choice, forgiveness is not a once-stated, “let bygones be bygones.” Rather, it is a choice that might have to be repeated again and again, especially when anger begins to seethe and overtake us.

While forgiveness benefits the offender, firstly, and above all, it benefits the offended. Whoever chooses to forgive refuses to live in the past with a heart and mind filled with grudges and resentment. The benefits from this choice are multiple and foster the welfare of the offended — physical, spiritual, psychological and social. Ultimately, it is the offended that benefits.

So what is forgiveness not? Forgiveness is not to be confused with pardoning, condoning, excusing, forgetting or denying. Only a judge — human or God — grants pardon or condemnation. Forgiveness cannot condone or excuse an evil. Nonetheless, forgiveness can still be fostered while, at the same time, recognizing an injustice or moral wrong. Nor in the end does forgiveness forget or deny a wrong or evil. Forgiveness recognizes the evil for what it truly is and remembers it so as to build a better world.

Saint John Paul II is an excellent example of forgiveness. In 1981 Mehmet Ali Agca attempted to assassinate the pope and managed to seriously wound him. In 1983, Pope John Paul visited Agca in prison in order to personally convey his forgiveness. The pope forgave Agca; yet, at the same time, the Holy Father did not stop the wheels of justice. Agca remained in prison for another 20 years.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa who chaired its “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (formed to foster national healing after the apartheid period) wrote a book entitled, “No Future Without Forgiveness.” His conclusion was that if there is no forgiveness, one will live in the past — in the hurtful, brutal, imprisoning past. For Tutu, forgiveness was the compass toward the future of his nation — a future of healing and of unlocking constructive powers as opposed to destructive schemes.

Father Matthew Weber, MA, STL is pastor of Saint Bridget Parish, Glassboro.

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