One of the seven petitions of the Our Father is “and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” a petition the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes as “astonishing.” Our petition will not be heard, we are told, unless we meet this “strict requirement.” (2838) The Catechism goes on to explain:
“…this outpouring of [God’s] mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Love, like the Body of Christ, is indivisible; we cannot love the God we cannot see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see. In refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters, our hearts are closed and their hardness makes them impervious to the Father’s merciful love; but in confessing our sins, our hearts are opened to his grace.” (2840)
Throughout Scripture, we have many beautiful stories of forgiveness. Esau and Jacob were fraternal twin brothers, but Jacob had to flee for his life after he tricked Esau out of his birthright and their father Isaac’s blessing. Years later, they met again, and Jacob feared for his life, but, “Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, and flinging himself on his neck, kissed him as he wept.” (Genesis 33:4)
Years later, Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, would be sold into slavery by his envious brothers. Joseph, by God’s providence, would rise to the second highest position in Egypt, just under the pharaoh, and would years later again encounter his brothers. His brothers wondered, “Suppose Joseph has been nursing a grudge against us and now most certainly will pay us back in full for all the wrong we did him!” (Genesis 50:15)
Yet Joseph harbored no bitterness in his heart, and readily forgave his brothers. Joseph told them, “‘Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good, to achieve this present end, the survival of many people. So now, do not fear. I will provide for you and for your children.’ By thus speaking kindly to them, he reassured them.” (Genesis 50:20-21)
Our Lord frequently spoke of the imperative to forgive. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told His listeners that if they went to the temple to offer a gift and recalled they were in conflict with their brother, to make peace before offering their gift. “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
He told His followers the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), in which the Master asks the unforgiving servant, “Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” The parable concludes, “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”
When we are willing to forgive, we not only follow the example of Christ on the Cross—“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)—but also may help win the conversion of those who persecute us. There are many stories from the saints that illustrate this. St. Peregrine Laziosi (1260-1345) is a great saint of the Servite Order. At age 18, he was an angry young man hostile to the Church when he heard the preaching of the prior general of the Servites, St. Philip Benizi. He heckled the venerable priest and was so filled with rage by what Philip said, he viciously punched Philip in the face. Peregrine later repented and went to apologize to Philip, who received him with kindness and readily forgave him. Peregrine was so moved by the experience that he joined the Servite Order himself, was ordained a priest and later became a saint. Today, we know him as the patron saint of those suffering from cancer.
Closer to our time, St. Maria Goretti (1890-1902) was a beautiful 12-year-old Italian girl who was viciously stabbed to death by Alessandro Serenelli, angry that she had rejected his lustful advances. Before she died the following day she forgave Alessandro, who spent 27 years in prison for his crime. Alessandro repented while in prison, and claimed he had a dream of Maria visiting him and presenting him with flowers. Upon his release, he sought out Maria’s mother to beg her forgiveness. He spent the last years of his life as a lay Franciscan brother.
Another impactful lesson for me was when Pope St. John Paul II forgave his would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca in prison. On May 13, 1981, the pope was crossing St Peter’s Square in Vatican City when an attempt was made on his life. Four shots were fired directly at him with a 9-millimeter pistol. The bullets struck the pontiff’s lower intestine, right arm and left index finger. He was rushed to the hospital.
The pontiff, with severe blood loss, asked for all Catholics to pray for the man who had shot him. He told the world that he had “sincerely forgiven” Mehmet Ali Agca. I remember thinking: what would I do? How forgiving would I be?
John Paul II followed up with an incredible visit to his would-be assassin in prison. He spoke to him privately, loving him, with the forgiveness of Christ. Demonstrating that it was not just a one-time event, the pope stayed in touch with him and his family. He even requested in 2000 that he be released from prison, which was granted.
After Mehmet Ali Agca was deported to Turkey, in a miracle of Christ’s love, personified by Pope St. John Paul II, he converted to Christianity in 2010! What love! What an example by John Paul!
The examples of these saints are illustrations of the belief of St. John of the Cross (1542-91), “Where there is no love, pour love in, and you will draw out love.”
Do you want to be holy? Does holding on to your lack of forgiveness mean more to you than being holy? When we don’t forgive, it is like telling Jesus you don’t care that He died on the Cross for you. We are called to be the light of Christ: to live the Lord’s Prayer and to forgive as we are forgiven. We are called to be perfect. “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Desiring to achieve holiness is everything. Give up you lack of forgiveness, your hostility and resentments, and ask for it, desire it, seek it with all your heart and consecrate yourself to the Lord as sweet incense.
Deacon Steve Greco is author of Miracles through Prayer, a 2020 book to help readers improve their prayer lives and grow in holiness, available through his Spirit Filled Hearts Ministry website, www.spiritfilledhearts.org.
Deacon Steve Greco is a permanent deacon of the Diocese of Orange, California. He is assigned to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Irvine. He is also founder and president of Spirit Filled Hearts Ministry (www.spiritfilledhearts.org), which engages in evangelization and the promotion of spirituality.