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Hatred and Forgiveness

Forgiveness, mercy, acceptance, hope—words that have a Gospel flavour; words that more than others have become the theme of the reflections on the readings of the Mass that Pope Francis celebrates daily with the people in the small Santa Marta chapel in the Vatican. It could not be otherwise, since in the Gospel the proclamation of the mercy of God, of His infinite love for his children is the dominant theme.

God condemns the evil, yet He does not want the condemnation and the death of the sinner. In front of God, every human being is always lovable even when his life, sometimes even his physical appearance, is disfigured by sins. We all know people who look evil. We stay far from them. We are afraid that the aura of evil that we perceive in them can somehow attach to us. As a child, I remember the physical repulsion I felt of a man living in my neighbourhood who was known for the beatings he was inflicting on his wife and children. I had only heard the adults talk about his behaviour, but his face, always contorted in a sour grin, kept me at a safe distance. Instead, God looks with love also at those people whom others judge to be lost. In them, He can still perceive the flickering flame of the love he has put in them, He wants to see that flame grow. He never gives up hope.

Jesus, in front of the woman caught in the act of adultery, does not condemn her. The woman does not ask for forgiveness. When the accusers go away in shame for their self-righteousness after being challenged to throw the first stone, He just asks her: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” and at her negative reply He tells her: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” It is forgiveness without condition, not even the pre-condition of repentance. We may be surprised because to forgive is so difficult for us, and because for many centuries the Church in the West has listed sins in accordance to their gravity, and the penance was meted out in proportion. Priests had become accountants of sins, rather than administrators of the forgiveness of the Father. Now, we are surprised because Pope Francis is simply reminding us of the importance of forgiveness in Christian life, in a teaching that can be summarized in two lines: God is universal and infinite love. One cannot deserve His love; it is He who reaches out to all people, to all sinners, to all those who need to heal their lives.

Forgiveness is freedom

It is difficult for us to forgive. Yet, forgiveness opens up new horizons and new life. As a priest, I have learned to see the presence of God in the lives of people when I see forgiveness. I saw it when I met Wanjiku, a young woman from central Kenya. She lost her parents when very young and was brought up in the homestead of a relatively wealthy uncle. Treated like a slave by the stepmother, she had to work in the kitchen and to attend to the domestic animals for more than fourteen hours per day, while her cousins went to school. Out of sheer determination, she studied in the evening using the books she found scattered around the house, she went to church and catechism classes on Sundays and then found the courage to run away and fend for herself in Nairobi.

Now Wanjiku works as a flight attendant in an international airline company, a job incredibly prestigious back in the village. Just imagine flying every day all over the world! It would have been easy for her to go back and make fun of or despise those who had mistreated her. Instead, she told me: “when I went back to the village for a visit, for a long time I did not tell my relatives about my job. I did not want to humiliate them. I wanted to win them over first. I just brought small gifts. I do not have any grudges against them. I know they struggled for life, I understand their worries, their fear for the future, for the difficult condition of their lives. I have forgiven them, and I would like to see them spend their last years in serenity. I am sure that when they were exploiting me, they were deeply unhappy for some reasons that I did not know, and I do not want to judge them.” Wanjiku is a free person. The past is gone, she looks ahead to a life of commitment and work, to form her family, to pour out to others the love she had not experienced as a child. Freeing herself, Wanjiku frees her uncle and aunt from the chains of their past.

Pope Francis, while visiting a community of contemplative Sisters and talking about Mary as the mother of all Christians, told this delightful story to illustrate how Mary is a merciful mother. “Mary is at the door to Paradise. Saint Peter does not always open when great sinners knock at the door. Mary sees the desperation on the faces of those rejected, she suffers with them, she would like to console them, but she does not want to argue with St Peter. So she stays put. At night, when St Peter closes the door and goes for some well-deserved rest, when nobody sees and nobody hears, Mary opens the door and lets everyone enter.”

Respect and love sinners

The pastors, the priests have a difficult task: they have to teach what is good, to point to their fellow Christians the way towards Jesus, to condemn what is evil, but at the same time they have to teach respect and love for sinners. They have to be like the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost sheep; to be like the forgiving father who opens his arms to receive the lost son; to be like Jesus on the cross, forgiving those who are crucifying and despising him. The self-righteous may protest.

What is then really putting our Christian life in danger? It is to hate the sinner. Pope John XXIII fifty years ago made it clear: “we do not have to confuse the sin with the sinner”, because “the sinner is first and foremost a human being and retains the dignity of a human person” and therefore must be treated with mercy and compassion.

Hatred is the opposite of love, mercy and compassion. Speaking to the youth at the end of the World Youth Day in Brazil, Pope Francis gave them advice valid for Christians of all ages. “Do not water down your faith in Jesus Christ. Read the Beatitudes: that will do you good. If you want to know what you actually have to do, read Matthew Chapter 25, which is the standard by which we will be judged. With these two things you have the action plan: the Beatitudes and Matthew 25. You do not need to read anything else.”

One Comment

  1. Fr. Kizito…very encouraging. I am always elevated whenever I read a blog from you. I hope we can a joint OpEd together at some point.

    Fredrick Wamalwa

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