Forgiveness Is at Heart of Reconciliation

By Jerry Filteau
The Tidings [United States]
June 30, 2006

It is forgiveness, not justice, that brings repentance and reconciliation, Boston College theologian Roberto Goizueta said in a Catholic Common Ground Initiative lecture June 24 at The Catholic University of America.

Before the lecture, Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati presented Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta with the initiative's 2006 Cardinal Bernardin Award. The award recognized the Atlanta archbishop's efforts to bring healing to the U.S. church in the wake of the 2002 crisis over clergy sexual abuse of minors.

Archbishop Gregory was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in November 2001, just two months before the Boston Globe began an investigative series on clergy sex abuse in Boston that quickly burgeoned into a nationwide outcry.

'What the resurrection embodies is not simply the victory of individual life over death but the victory of communal life over estrangement, the possibility of reconciliation in the face of abandonment.' -- Roberto Goizueta, theologian

"Throughout the crisis, he led the USCCB with great courage and manifest faith," Archbishop Pilarczyk said. Archbishop Gregory's three-year term as president ended in November 2004.

"His concern for victims of abuse, his love for the priesthood, his willingness to take a stand, his insight and articulateness, and his tireless availability to the media which were insatiable in covering the crisis made him an outstanding leader for the bishops and for the church during some very difficult years," he added.

Archbishop Pilarczyk is chairman of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, which Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago launched shortly before his death in 1996 in an effort to end polarization in the U.S. church and bring reconciliation and healing.

The National Pastoral Life Center in New York coordinates the activities of the initiative, organizing national dialogues and the annual lecture and Bernardin award and encouraging a variety of local initiatives to promote mutual understanding among people who hold diverse views on various church issues.

While many who speak about reconciliation emphasize the acknowledgment of wrongdoing and repentance by the wrongdoer as starting points for reconciliation, Goizueta spoke about forgiveness by the victim as a starting point.

"The victim's offer of forgiveness and the subsequent reconciliation are at the very heart of the Christian understanding of resurrection; Jesus Christ's resurrection makes possible our reconciliation to God and to each other precisely as the innocent, crucified victim's offer of forgiveness to those who have crucified him," he said.

"Of all those persons who shared responsibility for Jesus' crucifixion, surely none contributed more to Jesus' agony than the apostles themselves, those fair-weather friends who abandoned Jesus to his fate precisely at the moment when he most needed them," he said. He suggested that even more devastating than Jesus' physical agony was "the emotional and spiritual agony of experiencing himself abandoned by his closest friends and even by God."

Breaking apart the Gospel narratives of Christ's post-resurrection appearances to the apostles, Goizueta said there is "high drama" in those encounters: "How would he confront them? Would he excoriate them? Would he demand justice? How, in turn, would they react to the utterly unexpected appearance of the man whom they had betrayed?"

He said the fact that Jesus' glorified body still retained the wounds of his suffering and death is significant because it forced the apostles to recall the connection between their behavior and his death.

But instead of rebuking them, Jesus says, "Peace be with you" and then asks for something to eat, Goizueta said. "Jesus offers them peace before they've even acknowledged him -- much less repented -- then invites himself over for dinner."

Jesus' offer of forgiveness and reconciliation and their acceptance of that offer transform the apostles "from cowering cowards to a courageous band of disciples willing to literally lay down their lives for their crucified and risen friend and for each other," he said.

If Jesus is viewed not just as an individual but as head of the community he founded, Goizueta said, "what the resurrection embodies is not simply the victory of individual life over death but the victory of communal life over estrangement, the possibility of reconciliation in the face of abandonment. ... True reconciliation, true community, is made possible only when the demands of justice are transformed by an extravagant, gratuitous love that, still bearing the wounds of betrayal, pardons without counting the cost."

"It is thus the victim who makes possible the reconciled community. ... It is not repentance that brings about forgiveness, but the reverse," he said.

He said the Christian view of forgiveness and reconciliation "is susceptible to all sorts of dangerous distortions" -- not least of which is ignoring the fact that "justice is also at the heart of the Christian call to discipleship."

University of Notre Dame theologian Margaret R. Pfeil, the respondent to Goizueta's talk, highlighted the Eucharist as the ongoing reminder and enactor of Jesus' merciful love that transcends the demands of justice.

"As Roberto puts it, Jesus' revenge for our betrayal is to ask us to share a meal with him," she said.

"In the Eucharist," she commented, "Jesus continues to extend his loving peace and mercy to us through his wounded body and spilled blood, signs that have the capacity to sear our consciences by evoking memories of the many ways that we have betrayed his love. ... It is Jesus' grace-filled, gratuitous peace that draws us, and this in spite of all that we may have done to reject him."

She said people who choose to follow Jesus' example transform themselves from victims to victors by the very act of forgiveness, even if it does not draw a response of repentance and conversion from those who have harmed them.


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