Circular Letter: Lent 2000
Father, forgive us our trespasses as we
forgive those who trespass against us
1. The Jubilee Petition of Reconciliation
Wonderfully did God create us, yet more wonderfully did he recreate us. The Father, who is rich in mercy, chose to reveal and pour out upon us the plenitude of his loving kindness through the Redemptive love of Christ. Every time we petition the Father, “forgive us our trespasses” this work of mercy is renewed in our souls. This is the theme for the Jubilee Year 2000 and for our present meditation on the 5th petition of the Our Father.
Like simple, trusting children we approach the Father, asking forgiveness of him as a pure gratuity of his paternal love, “for his merciful love endures forever” (Ps 135, refrain). We do not presume to restore the intimacy of love with him by dint of our own labors. Divine intimacy cannot be earned, it can only be received as a pure gift. If mercy could be earned, it would not be mercy [grace] (Cf. Rom 11, 6).
2. The Harmony within the “Our Father”
The last three petitions of the Our Father are concerned with the removal of evil from our lives. The first and most immediate evil is sin; its essence is the aversion of the divine will. Not only is every sin contrary to the divine will, but in every serious sin the sinner knowingly rejects the order of the divine will. Thus, the 5th petition for forgiveness of sins stands over and against the 3rd petition: “Thy will be done.”
The second evil, from which we beg to be spared in the 6th petition, is temptation, the enticement of evil, which threatens to seduce us away from the kingdom of God, for whose coming we pray in the 2nd petition. And the final evil, from which we beg to be delivered in the 7th petition, is the eternal subjection to the evil one, whose malice and hatred is the antithesis of the holiness of God, in which we desire to share in the 1st petition. In the middle stands Christ, our Mediator-Priest in the Blessed Sacrament, ‘our daily Bread’ through whom we receive every good gift from the Father. How well St. Thomas expresses this:
O Sacred Banquet in which Christ is consumed, (4th: our daily bread)
the memory of his passion is celebrated
(3rd: doing the Father’s will, our sins are forgiven, 5th)
the mind is filled with grace (2nd: the kingdom has come,
temptation is vanquished, 6th) and the pledge of future glory is given us.
(1st: the definitive share in God’s holiness, and deliverance from the evil, 7th)
3. A Prayer with a Catch!
The supplication for forgiveness stands out in the Our Father as the only petition to which a condition is attached: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Moreover, this is the only point to which Our Lord immediately returned, when he taught his disciples this prayer: “For if you forgive men their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you your offenses. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your offenses” (Mt 6, 14-15).
It has been said with some earnest that the Our Father is a dangerous prayer; one runs the risk of failing to receive forgiveness for having failed to forgive from the heart! The urgent question is: why should our heavenly Father demand that we apparently take the first step in forgiving our neighbor in order to receive forgiveness from him? The inclination is to cry out: “forgive us, Lord, so that we can forgive our neighbor”. But the original Greek is even more emphatic: “forgive us…, as we have forgiven our trespassers.” We need to examine why this must be so, why not even God can dispense us from this condition.
First, however, let us verify that the condition is really in earnest. The doctrine is already expressed in the OT. Sirach, for instance, exhorts: “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done [you], and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does a man harbor anger against another, and yet seek for healing from the Lord? Does he have no mercy towards a man like himself, and yet pray for his own sins?” (28, 2-4).
In the NT, Our Lord repeats this lesson many times. For example, in the Beatitudes, he declares: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5, 7). And elsewhere: “Forgive, and you shall be forgiven; give, and it shall be given to you, good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, shall they pour into your lap. For with what measure you measure, it shall be measured to you” (Lk 6, 37-38; Cf. Mt 7,1f).
The forgiveness of those who have greatly harmed us and the ones we love is such a difficult matter that Our Lord presents it as one of the sure signs of his disciples. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and shall hate your enemy’. But I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute and calumniate you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. … If you [only] love those who love you, what reward shall you have? Do not even the publicans do that? … You therefore are to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5,43ff).
Thus, Christian prayer extends by a fundamental obligation to the forgiveness of enemies, “transfiguring the disciple by configuring him to his Master. Forgiveness is the highpoint of Christian prayer; only hearts attuned to God’s compassion can receive the gift of prayer” (CCC 2844).
4. The Forgiveness of Sins
a. The Deadly Blow of Sin
To understand what it means to be forgiven and to forgive, we need to understand sin and the damage caused by it. It’s not simply a matter of a harsh word or bitter feelings. Sin not only wounds and offends unjustly, sin strikes a mortal blow at love. Serious sin destroys the very foundation of friendship and communion with God and neighbor; it brings death into the soul. Serious sin is radical selfishness. By charity we cherish God as our supreme good and our neighbor as ourselves. The mortal sinner has driven God out of the garden of his soul, he trampled his divine sonship, destroyed his citizenship for heaven and made himself worthy of eternal damnation.
b. The Hour of Insight
Then comes the hour – God offering the grace – when the sinner, like a prodigal son, destitute and famished, enters into himself; he understands that all his misery comes from having despised his father’s love.
Now, what is he to do in order to regain life and the benevolence of his father? Calling to mind his father’s incredible goodness, the prodigal son resolved: “I will rise up and go to my father and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired servants'” (Lk 15,18-19). He arose and went to his father. But while he was yet far off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion, and ran and fell upon his neck and kissed him. The son begged his father’s forgiveness, acknowledging his unworthiness. Even before he could beg to be allowed to work as a servant, his father treated him as his beloved son, and calling his servants, clothed him in the best robe, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet and called for feasting, for his son had been dead and has come back to live, had been lost and was found.
The son experienced perfect sorrow for his sins (contrition), and had a firm intention to make good by serving his father humbly.
c. The Nature of Contrition
When is sorrow for sin perfect? Our Lord explained this to St. Catherine of Siena: “Do you not know, dear daughter, that all the sufferings the soul bears, or can bear in this life, are insufficient to punish one smallest sin? For an offense against me, the Infinite Good, demands infinite satisfaction. … [Still] true contrition satisfies for sin and its penalty not by virtue of any finite suffering you may bear but by virtue of your infinite desire. For God, who is infinite, wishes for infinite love and infinite sorrow.
“The infinite sorrow God wants is twofold: in one way, through the soul’s sorrow for her own sins, which she has committed against me her Creator; in the other way, through her sorrow for the sins which she sees her neighbors committing against me. Because those who have such sorrow have infinite desire and are one with me in loving affection (which is why they grieve when they sin or see others sinning), every suffering they bear from any source whatever, in spirit or in body, is of infinite worth and so satisfies for the offense that deserved an infinite penalty. True, these are finite deeds in finite time. But because their virtue is practiced and their suffering borne with infinite desire and contrition and infinite displeasure at sin, their pain is held worthy” (Dialogues, “Divine Providence”).”
Accordingly, the nature of perfect contrition, as opposed to imperfect contrition, is an infinite desire for God. Contrition, evidently, is a part of hope, which is, in turn, a special kind of love that should lead us to charity and perfect happiness. Thus St. Gemma Galgani exclaims: “I’ve found the fire which destroys all sins; I’ve found the ardor which dissipates all my tepidity; I’ve found the flame which destroys all my passions.” And she supplicates: “A flame, let a single flame descend into my heart to burn away my sins,… O angels, angels, I can do nothing…. You praise the love of Jesus [for me]. Ecce, Jesus, I surrender myself to Your holy love” (Ecstasies, 83).
d. The Pain of Contrition Extends to all Sins
Since the pain of perfect contrition is motivated and caused by the consideration of God “who is all good and deserving of all love”, it follows that not only my own sins cause me such pain, but that I should also sorrow over the sins of others, since they too pain God. St. Gemma Galgani writes: “By the light which he has deigned to give me, I have acquired the knowledge of my baseness; and while weeping over my own many sins, my sorrow increases all the more at the thought of all the outrages and the many ingratitudes which creatures perpetrate every day against Jesus” (Letter to Fr. Germano, 76).
e. When is my Contrition Perfect?
This understanding of contrition gives us a good rule by which we can discern whether our contrition is perfect or imperfect. If only my own sins cause me such pain, then I know that my contrition is imperfect, since my motivation is either the fear of hell or the possible loss of heaven. However, when I begin to feel sorrow and compassion with Our Lord over all the sins of men by which he is offended, then my contrition is perfect. Evidently, there are many degrees of perfect contrition. It usually begins, when we feel sorrow for the sins of those whom we love, for example, parents who sorrow at the sins of their children. But, then, in a moment of grace, when we see that all men are called to be children of God, we begin to sorrow with him for the loss of souls due to sin, for the offenses committed against his loving Heart.
f. What Sin Isolates, Contrition Regathers
Recall that we were praying for “us”: “Our Father, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. If then we are sincerely praying to God to forgive “us” “our” debts, then clearly we cannot logically refuse to forgive our neighbor, who belongs to this group we call “us”. If we really have sorrow for our neighbors’ sins too, then surely we want them to be reconciled to God, which is infinitely more important than any damage we may have suffered at their hands. Even in sinning against us, we see that their greater fault was against God. We want to console God, and he is only consoled — in this sense — by the reconciliation of sinners. Hence, we pray for them in this petition and forgive them in order to facilitate this reconciliation.
g. Readiness to Forgive, the Prerequisite of Love
We can understand now that the condition attached to this petition whereby we forgive our debtors is not arbitrary and contractual, but points to the essential disposition of heart which we must present to God with the help of his grace, so that we be capable of receiving forgiveness. Why? Because sin can only be forgiven by the infusion of sanctifying grace into our souls, and this only comes with love through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the soul, in order to be forgiven, must be ready and disposed to love also its neighbor supernaturally.
In the solidarity of the family of God, indeed as members of the one Body of Christ, we must hope for the salvation of all. Not to forgive one’s neighbor is to will his retention in the state of guilt. And this is tantamount to willing his damnation. Clearly the love of God can find no entrance into such a heart. The condition of this petition, therefore, gives us the minimal degree of fraternal solidarity demanded by divine love: we must will the salvation of our neighbor and desire this to the point of readily forgiving him from the heart. God is willing to forgive us our 10,000 talent debt of sins; should not we have mercy on our fellow servants, forgiving them the 100 denarii they may owe us (Cf. Mt 18, 24. 33)?
h. Depression and Forgiveness
Pastorally, it is important to distinguish between the act of will, whereby we forgive our debtors, and the hard feelings that may linger in the emotions. Without God’s grace we are incapable of such forgiving love… but even grace does not take away the emotional pains that follow upon injustices and frequently repeated wrongs. Thus, while we will to forgive, we may still feel (surges of uncontrolled) bitterness, aversion, rancor, sadness, spite, anger, revenge and even hatred. Indeed, it is not possible to feel any negative emotion without first feeling the emotion of hatred, because hatred is the origin of all negative motions in the soul. To feel hatred as an emotion does not necessarily mean that we have the sin of hatred in our heart (will). These feelings only become sinful when the individual consents to them and wittingly nurtures them.
It follows that even when we forgive from the heart (will), we will still need to keep vigilant guard over our emotions, since they are not docile to the will, but rather ‘erupt’ all by themselves. It may take years and years of repeated acts of forgiveness in order to heal the wounds in our emotions.
Some souls may nurse these grudges and fall into an habitual state of sin. Others resist them improperly, by repressing their deep sadness and anger (aggression), and so it comes to pass that they suffer profound depression and alienation, which is really simply emotional despair (as distinct from theological despair). This can also happen in families and communities and should be overcome through the frequent, conscious forgiveness of those who trespass against us.
A good pastor of souls, when he observed that individuals were suffering from depression (excluding cases where it is a medical problem), he would ask them what they were angry about. At times, the individuals did not even recognize that they were angry. Upon reflection, however, the hurt came to the surface. The good priest then put these souls on a 5 year penance program of forgiving daily from the heart all those who may have offended them. Why so long? Because emotional wounds can only be completely healed in the course of time. Notwithstanding, he assures that many marriage problems experience quick relief by this daily practice of forgiveness.
5. The Holy Angels in the Ministry of Forgiveness
By grievous sin sinners “have lost the good company of the angels in order to become comrades of the devil and subject to him, making ourselves slaves to our passions, reversing the order of reason, and offending our guardian angels to whom we are so indebted” (St. Francis de Sales. Treatise on Love, Bk II, ch 18). Still, the angels do not abandon sinners to the shipwreck of sin.
The angels are ministers of mercy. They delight over the work of mercy in souls; Jesus assures us that there is more joy among the angels in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over 99 just who have no need of repentance (Cf. Lk 15, 7. 10). St. Francis de Sales witnesses to their distress over sin: “What a pitiful sight it is to the angels of peace to see the Holy Spirit and his love thus depart from our sinful souls! In truth, I believe that if they could weep, they would pour forth infinite tears. With mournful voices they would lament our misery” (ibid., Bk IV, ch 2).
With respect to this petition for the forgiveness of our sins let us focus on the angelic help in leading us to sorrow for sin. This is of two kinds: sorrow for our own sins, sorrow for the sins of the world.
a. The Angels lead us to Sorrow for our own Sins
The guardian angel is a tireless intercessor for the conversion and spiritual progress of his ward. He offers light and admonitions so as to lead the sinner to a deeper knowledge and sorrow for his sins. He holds a double-edged sword: at times he is severe and wounds us with the thought of divine justice and the impending judgment, with the thought of the eternal punishments of hell for those who die unrepentant before God. St. Gemma’s guardian angel also treated her with severity: “My guardian angel presented himself with earnestness and severity. … I couldn’t understand the reason why, but then I remembered two sins which I had committed in the course of the day. My God, what sternness! A number of times my guardian angel repeated the word: ‘I am ashamed of you'” (Letter, 1900-IX-2).
At other times, the guardian angel wounds us with the view of the goodness and mercy of God, of the sorrowful and Sacred Heart of Jesus, so hurt by our sins. While preparing for prayer, St. Gemma’s angel came to her; together they adored the divine Majesty, and then her angel “gave me such a lively sorrow for my sins; I felt such great pain that I was ashamed to find myself in his presence. I tried to hide myself, to flee from the sight of all. This torment lasted for quite some time, but then he encouraged me” (Letter to P. Germano 44). On another occasion, when tormented by the fear of damnation due to her many sins, her angel encouraged her, “But the mercy of God is infinite!” (Diary, Aug. 16, 1900).
Often times St. Gemma’s angel exhorted her to confession. The frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance is one of the principal ways to receive the remission of the debt due to sin in addition to prayers, penances and alms. St. Thomas explains: “In contrition God forgives the fault and commutes eternal punishment into temporal; but the debt of temporal punishment remains. Hence if a man were to die without confession, … he would go to purgatory, the punishment of which is very great, as Augustine says. Accordingly, when you confess your sin, the priest absolves you from this punishment by the power of the keys to which you have submitted in confession. … Hence, if a man confesses once, some part of this punishment is taken away, and likewise when he confesses a second time. In fact, it may be that he confesses the sin so often that the whole punishment is remitted” (St. Thomas Aquinas. On the Our Father. The Three Greatest Prayers. Sophia Institute Press, p. 146; Cf. CCC 1496).
b. The Angels lead us to Intercede for Sinners
The angels also lead souls to offer prayers and sacrifices for the sake of sinners, whether in this life or for those suffering in purgatory. For the sake of the latter, St. Gemma’s angel asked her: “How long has it been since you last prayed for the souls in purgatory? O my daughter, you think far too little about them. Mother Maria Theresia is still suffering in purgatory, do you realize this?” To be sure, Gemma had prayed for her that very morning. Notwithstanding, her angel insisted and assured her that it would please Jesus if she would offer every little suffering for their relief. St. Gemma asked if she could offer her physical pain – a headache – for the sake of the poor souls. Her angel confirmed: “Yes, my daughter, every little suffering, however small, affords them relief!” (Aug 6, 1900).
The poor souls can no longer benefit from the power of the keys in the sacrament of Penance, but they can benefit from the power of the keys with which the Church institutes indulgences, for these can be applied to the poor souls (Cf. St. Thomas, loc. cit., 1087). Since this can be so easily done, pious souls ought to commit themselves to this in the spirit of this petition, where we implore God to forgive us our trespasses. The poor souls still belong to this group of ‘us’. Ask your angel, he will remind you. You could also make a general intention: “Lord, I intend to receive every indulgence which the Church offers for any of the prayers and good works which I perform, and I wish to apply them to the poor souls.”
Finally, the angels are solicitous that we be willing to fill up in our flesh the sufferings wanting to Christ;s Passion for his Body the Church (Cf. Col 1,24). If the angels could envy us they would envy us this, asserts St. Francis de Sales, that we can suffer in union with Christ for the salvation of souls and render satisfaction for the outrages committed against the Divine Majesty.
Along these lines St. Gemma’s guardian angel exhorted her: “O daughter, do you not know that you should be conformed in everything to the life of Jesus? He suffered so much for you, and you do not know that on every occasion you ought to suffer for him? And why is it that you offer him this displeasure, that you have given up the daily meditation on the Passion?” (Diary, 186). And she confesses: “My angel told me so many times on Thursday evening shortly before suffering [with our Lord in the Passio] that it is by means of suffering that I can become like Jesus, can prove to him my love and secure for myself the love of Jesus” (Letter to Fr. Germano, 46). And why all this suffering for which the angel prepared her? Jesus himself gave her the response: “I desire that you be a victim and that you suffer continually to placate the indignation that my Father has towards sinners, and that you offer yourself to him as a victim for all sinners,… I have nothing else to offer to let you know that I want you to be my very own crucified spouse” (Ecstasies, 68).
We are all called to some share in the Cross of Jesus, since we are called to be his disciples in carrying the cross for the forgiveness of sins. A love for the Cross is a sure sign of forgiveness and a straight path to salvation; how your guardian angel longs to enkindle this love in your heart. You begin to open your heart to this mystery of merciful love when you pray,
Fr. William Wagner, ORC
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