Homily for Mass, St Patrick’s Basilica, Ottawa

[Readings: Sirach 27:30 – 28:7;  Ps 103;  Rom 14:7-9;  Matt 18:21-35]


When Jesus answered Peter’s question and told the parable that we heard in today’s Gospel, he introduced an almost unimaginable rule of MERCY … he showed the extent of divine mercy.  Peter no doubt thought he was being generous in suggesting that we should forgive seven times.  Jesus multiplies this: “seventy – seven times.”  Scholars suggest that the Greek is better interpreted as “seventy times seven times” – that is, 490 times.  In other words – you keep forgiving until you’ve lost count!

The parable he tells is even more extravagant in its description of mercy.  The first slave owed ten thousand talents – this is an extraordinary amount of money.  It’s said that “the annual income for all of King Herod the Great’s territorries … [would ] have been 900 talents per year” [Terrence Prendergast SJ, Living God’s Word: Reflections on the Sunday Readings for Year A, Toronto, Novalis, 2010, p. 138] so ten thousand talents is an extraordinarily large debt.  And yet, the master has mercy, and forgives the debt.  This extravagant act of mercy should have engendered mercy in response, and yet for some reason the slave does not share this mercy and forgiveness when implored to do so by a fellow slave.

As we begin to consider forgiveness, I think it’s important to mention what forgiveness is NOT.  Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting.  There’s nothing particularly virtuous about forgetting, and whether you forget or not, you can still forgive.  Also, forgiving is not condoning.  Sometimes our language is unhelpful.  If someone says sorry to us, whilst the polite response might be “that’s ok” – in a sense that’s not quite what we mean.  Forgiveness is not saying that it’s OK to do wrong.  Another important thing is that forgiveness is not a feeling: its an act of the will, maintained over time.  And because of this, its perfectly possible to forgive and still feel sadness, or anger.  However, if we maintain that act of will to forgive, the Lord can and does help us to deal with our feelings, which we have much less control over than our will.

A paragraph from the Catholic Catechism is helpful:  “It is not in our power not to feel [an offense] or to forget an offence; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the heart into intercession” (CCC 2843).  Our work at forgiveness – all the time – is helpful in conforming us to the image of Christ.  By responding to our hurts in the Holy Spirit, this helps us to come to embrace the compassion of Christ.  With Christ’s help, we are led away from focusing on ourselves and what we have experienced, and realizing that the offender is truly the one in need of prayer.

We could name many saints who witness to heroic forgiveness.  St Maria Goretti springs instantly to mind, who on her deathbed forgives her attacker.  But you may have heard the story of Cheryl McGuinness, the wife of the one of the pilots of American Airlines Flight 11 that was hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Centre, today ten years ago.  When she visited Ground Zero,

“She looked into the pit where the remains of the building once stood. As she looked at the remains, her eyes fixed on the only steel structure left standing. It was in the shape of a cross. She kept looking from the pit to the cross and her eyes focused on the cross. She said, “Lord, they killed my husband.” She saw herself at the foot of the Cross. She felt like God was telling her to forgive the terrorists who did this. She asked Him why. She felt like the Lord told her, “Because I forgave you.” [She] didn’t necessarily want to, but from then on she made a commitment to actively forgive the terrorists for what they did to [her husband] Tom and to [her] nation. She felt as though she were kneeling at the base of the Cross, guilty of her own offenses against God and others, with God’s forgiveness to her. At that moment she felt gratitude for what Christ did on the Cross for the sins of humanity, and she felt that she would be reunited with Tom someday. She also realized that she had a choice to forgive the evil of 9/11 and the pain it caused her or remain in hatred. She chose to forgive.”  [http://www.cbn.com/700club/guests/bios/cheryl_mcguinness_090904.aspx]

This teaching of Jesus on mercy and forgiveness comes at the climax of his teaching about the community of the church.  And so this is a signal that it is meant to be a hallmark of Christian people that they choose to forgive and show mercy.  This is a mighty challenge to us!  But we need to face this challenge if we are to truly follow our divine Saviour, and to be, with him, mediators of divine mercy and reconciliation.

Today, as we offer Mass, let’s look at the Cross of Christ.  As we look up at the cross, we might be aware of the ways we’ve been hurt, offended.  As we look at the Cross of the Lord, we hear him asking us to forgive others.  And when we ask “why?” we hear him remind us, lovingly, ‘because I forgave you.’  When we look at the Cross we realize that Christ has fully paid the debt of our sins by shedding his blood.  Like that enormous debt that the master forgave of the slave who owed the ten thousand talents.  We are called to respond to what Jesus has done for us by, in turn, showing mercy and forgiveness.

May the Holy Spirit help us to choose to forgive and to be bearers of Divine Mercy in our world which is so much in need of the Gospel of healing and reconciliation.