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In the course of Our Lord's active ministry, Jesus repeatedly directed his disciples to forgive others as God in Heaven forgives us all.
In the Our Father, the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, the important strophe "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" is a constant reminder of the importance of this central teaching of Our Lord.
It can be challenging to keep all of Jesus' teachings. He denounced divorce, directed us to be sincere in the practice of our Faith and urged us to keep all Ten Commandments. This is neither easily done nor a challenge for the faint of heart.
Granting forgiveness to those who hurt us or asking forgiveness for those we hurt is not easy. And for those big hurts we suffer during the course of our lives, most of us struggle — if we are honest with ourselves — to forgive our perpetrators as God has forgiven each one of us.
One of the strange ironies with some Catholics is that they can do a great job forgiving the individuals who hurt them seriously. But, for whatever reason, they hold on bitterly to some much smaller hurt they suffered from a family member. It surprised me as a pastor that among the good parishioners, those who were regular at Sunday Masses, there remained a sizable number who, despite being so faithful at keeping the Commandments and being friendly and neighborly with other parishioners, had only disdain and rancor towards members of their own flesh and blood.
For example, two adult brothers frequented the same Mass every Sunday morning with their wives and kids, just as they did when they were children. But, apart from going to the same Mass regularly, there was no communication between either of them or between their wives. They would never exchange pleasantries after Mass, and even the kids would keep their distance.
As their pastor, I was able over time to get down to the origin of the grievance between the brothers. It was something that happened decades before, but because of how stubborn both men were, the bitter grudge went on for years, until one died. Then, the grievance took on new dimensions. The aggrieved brother, along with his wife and children, skipped out on his own sibling's funeral.
I think the Almighty had an easier time parting the Red Sea than working with either of these men. They were nice enough to others and regular with their devotions but were more dead set against each other than two mad bulls. Our Lord's mandate to forgive was reserved by them for those outside of their family but was totally ignored when it came to their own brother. Jesus' mandate was only partially kept to the spiritual detriment of the two brothers and to the spiritual detriment of their families.
This reminds me of St. Peter, who one day asked Our Lord rather pointedly, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?"
Our Lord, responded, "I say to you, not seven times but 77 times."
He then proceeded to tell those gathered around Him the parable of the unforgiving servant. This parable underscores the importance of us as disciples to extend that same forgiveness that God has for us to all those with whom we interact: family, friends, work associates and society in general. In short, as God shows us His mercy in a limitless fashion, we should follow His example instead of doing anything less.
You would think, however — the way many so-called good Catholics spend their entire lives holding on to grudges — that Jesus gave a parable about some hurts or faults being completely unforgivable — as if God somehow gave us license to hold on to certain hurts we've suffered!
I hung onto a grudge for way too long, thinking falsely that I had been given the right by God to do so. For many years, I hung onto a grudge against my older brother David. He is four years older than me, and so, when I was in eighth grade, David was a senior in high school.
David is one of those genius types who could get an A in a course without ever cracking the textbook. So, in high school, grades were never a problem for him. But he was always in the principal's office because he was constantly getting into fist fights with anyone who slighted him or looked at him askance.
When we were both in the same grade school together, it was most convenient to have an older brother known by all in the school to be the bruiser, as he came to my defense more than once.
In my first couple of years of grade school, as a result of an accident I suffered at the age of 4, I had a set of wonderful silver dentures. These gave my classmates a mouthful of material to pester me about.
My given saint's names of Paul and John, or P.J. for short, were not used much by classmates and were supplanted by the derogatory terms of metal mouth and silver teeth. When David would overhear a classmate utter one of these less-than-flattering names for me, he would force them to take it back or give them a fist in the face. As a young grade school punk myself, I sort of enjoyed the added schoolyard entertainment — fist fights during recess and boys with bloody noses.
By the time I was in eighth grade, in the spring of 1975, my silver dentures had long since been removed, and my older brother had moved his fist fights into the super-sized neighborhood public high school. That spring, the Vietnam War was coming to its tragic conclusion, and students at the high school my brother attended went through a period of riots and rampant drug abuse.
It was during that horrible month of May that I graduated as class valedictorian. On the evening of graduation, all was going well at the Kalchik home until my mother decided to wash one final basket of laundry before heading out to the ceremony. Following her into the laundry room, as I was practicing my little valedictorian speech, my mom began the process of checking pockets before loading the washing machine.
I can still feel the exploding heat from my mother's glare as she held out a bag of pot. "What in the world is this?" she asked, as she held the bag up for me to see.
The smart aleck that I was blurted, "Pot! It's not basil David smokes!" My mom retorted, "What do you mean — he smokes pot?"
I continued: "A lot of the high school guys smoke pot! They smoke it in the school bus as they come and go to school. You get a high just going to school in the morning with so much pot on the bus."
My mom, practically losing her mind, warned, "Just wait until your father comes home tonight. It's a good thing David's at work because I would throttle him."
My mother was 100% Québécois French, with an easily unsettled temper. When she said "throttle," we all knew she intended to fully destroy her opponent. And whoever that might be had better run for cover.
Long story short, David would be ripped apart by my parents when he finally got home from work that night. The result of this interaction would be David's decision to enlist in the Navy. This would solve his problem of always being in trouble at school and hanging with the wrong crowd.
On the other hand, I had to sit through my graduation ceremony watching steam come off of my mom. She dutifully accompanied me up to the dais when the principal and the pastor gave me my awards and asked me to say a few words. But my mother's mind was miles away. Her handshake with and thank you to the principal and pastor were just perfunctory. For the entire graduation ceremony, she wasn't thinking about me at all; she was planning how to rescue her firstborn from self-destruction. And when we arrived home afterwards, what ensued in the big brown brick house on Atlantic Street was a localized nuclear war.
To my shame, I held a grudge against my older brother for years for stupidly leaving his pot in his jeans, totally ruining what I felt should have been a celebration focused on me and my hard-earned accomplishment. I held on to this grudge all through my university days. I purposely never participated in a public graduation ceremony for any of my degrees, even though I was one of the first in my family to obtain graduate degrees.
Though David quickly forgot about the pot-in-the-pocket incident that preceded his enlistment, I replayed it in my mind relentlessly and, in so doing, relinquished many occasions for joy. David ended up serving more than 40 years in the Navy, special forces and reserves — all of which got put into motion because he stupidly left his bag of pot in his jeans! (And some people question whether there is a God!) So he gained a lifetime of distinction while I foolishly sacrificed relishing my own subsequent successes. It was petty, and to my disgrace, this was part of who I was as a man for many years.
As a man in my 60s now, I have long since reconciled with my older brother and forgiven him for what I thought was his unforgivable sin (although as I write this, I notice how hard I still strike the keys of my laptop). Blessedly, God gave me and my brother the opportunity and time to fix our rift. But, if something had happened to him those first few years he was in military service, how would my beef with him have been settled? It surely would have caused me to shed many tears in lament.
Think about what you're missing because you're hanging on to something you think can't be pardoned. How much will you allow the sin of unforgiveness to steal from you and those around you whom it affects?
Many people bring grudges against family members to their graves. It might not necessarily be a horrible sin, but is certainly a sin that necessitates time spent in Purgatory. Why put off forgiveness another day? It can be fixed in the here and now instead of taking it to the afterlife.
My advice is to ask God today for the grace to move beyond all these so-called unforgivable grievances and to remind yourself that Our Lord's mandate for unlimited forgiveness applies even to one's own family.
Take this opportunity to ask yourself where you stand with Our Lord's most challenging mandate: to forgive those who hurt you. Are you like so many who limit this mandate considerably for this, that or the next so-called unforgivable sin? Or are you like Our Lord, Who blankets all of us in forgiveness — all of us — whenever we're open to it?
Recall Our Lord himself from the Cross exclaiming: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!"
It's challenging, certainly, but not impossible with God's grace.