Forgive and You Will Be Forgiven

Is forgiveness a completely dispensable act, a gift we receive from God and others, or, is it something we all require and need? Is not forgiveness an act which originates in the mercy of God? And, if so, isn’t the act of forgiveness essential to our faith and to our lives?

In beginning to ponder these questions, we need to consider the thought: Is there an Eternal Salvation for all mankind without Christ having first been Crucified and raised from the dead?

Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. (1 Cor 15:12–14)1

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us. (Eph 1:3–8)

Does this not necessitate that Jesus Christ be in His very nature God, the Sinless One who owes no debt for sin, and, yet, at the same time, through the hypostatic union be One who also possesses a human nature? A man willing and able to offer His life in sacrifice to His Heavenly Father, for the sins of all mankind? It is through His Sacred Offering that we receive the forgiveness of our sins and the grace to forgive our brothers and sisters in Christ.

But is the grace and forgiveness Christ offered His Life in Sacrifice to provide for us — unconditional? Here, we must comprehend, the forgiveness of our sins is undoubtably — conditional. And it is for this very reason that following the Sacrament of Baptism we have been given the Sacrament of Reconciliation:

Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as “the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.” (CCC 1446)2

Through this sacrament, we receive the forgiveness and mercy of God: His grace, healing, and transformation, that we might live out our lives as God intends — united to Him and not separated from Him due to our many sins.

The minister of this essential sacrament is the validly ordained priest who has received the Sacrament of Holy Orders in accord with Apostolic Succession:

Since Christ entrusted to his apostles the ministry of reconciliation, (cf. Jn 20:23; 2 Cor 5:18.) bishops who are their successors, and priests, the bishops’ collaborators, continue to exercise this ministry. Indeed bishops and priests, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, have the power to forgive all sins “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 1461)

However, before a baptized Catholic ought approach an ordained priest to receive this sacrament, the one who desires to confess, or the “penitent,” should pray to God that he or she possesses an open heart to the grace of the Holy Spirit, that they be wholly empowered to make a complete confession.

This is accomplished most thoroughly through the use of an examination of conscience:

The reception of this sacrament ought to be prepared for by an examination of conscience made in the light of the Word of God. The passages best suited to this can be found in the Ten Commandments, the moral catechesis of the Gospels and the apostolic Letters, such as the Sermon on the Mount and the apostolic teachings.(CCC 1454)3

A part of this process includes “a genuine heartfelt sorrow” for the sins one has committed: “Among the penitent’s acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is ‘sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again’” (CCC 1451).4

Thus, only after one has prayed to the Holy Spirt for His assistance, examined one’s conscience, and arrived at a genuine, humble, and heartfelt sorrow for one’s sins, should a “penitent” approach an ordained priest for the sacrament: “

Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance: “All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret and have been committed against the last two precepts of the Decalogue; for these sins sometimes wound the soul more grievously and are more dangerous than those which are committed openly.” (CCC 1456)5

The confession (or disclosure) of sins, even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible. (CCC 1455)

Following the honest and contrite disclosure of one’s sins by the penitent, the priest (or “confessor”) should offer some brief counsel and assign a penance:

Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused (cf. Council of Trent [1551]: DS 1712). Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called “penance.”

The penance the confessor imposes must take into account the penitent’s personal situation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all. They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, “provided we suffer with him.” (CCC 1459–60)6

Here, we must understand, receiving absolution certainly reconciles us with God and the Church, removing the Eternal punishment due for sin: “but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused (Cf. Council of Trent [1551]: DS 1712).”

The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the “old man” and to put on the “new man.” (CCC 1473)

Any temporal punishment which remains after reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, can be remitted under certain circumstances. For instance, perfect contrition; prayer, fasting, and almsgiving with perfect love; or by gaining a plenary indulgence — with respect to the normal conditions, including the complete absence of any attachment to sin, even venial.

In addition to these, it should be noted that our Lord Jesus Christ gave St. Maria Faustina Kowalska one further means of acquiring “the complete forgiveness of sins and punishment,” which is referred to as the “extraordinary promise” of Divine Mercy Sunday:

My daughter, tell the whole world about My inconceivable mercy. I desire that the Feast of Mercy be a refuge and shelter for all souls, and especially for poor sinners. On that day the very depths of My tender mercy are open. I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the Fount of My Mercy. The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment. On that day all the divine floodgates through which graces flow are opened. Let no soul fear to draw near to Me, even though its sins be as scarlet. My mercy is so great that no mind, be it of man or of angel, will be able to fathom it throughout all eternity. Everything that exists has come forth from the very depths of My most tender mercy. Every soul in its relation to Me will contemplate My love and mercy throughout eternity. The Feast of Mercy emerged from My very depths of tenderness. It is My desire that it be solemnly celebrated on the first Sunday after Easter. Mankind will not have peace until it turns to the Fount of My Mercy.7

On April 30, 2000, His Holiness John Paul II, in response to the wishes of the Christian faithful, declared that “the Second Sunday of Easter henceforth throughout the Church will also be called Divine Mercy Sunday.” The Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in its decree issued on May 5, 2000, formalized this declaration and by its inclusion in the Roman Missal made it binding throughout the universal Church.

Nevertheless, one must necessarily acknowledge the fact that unless satisfaction for personal sin is made during this lifetime, through some form of penance, the temporal punishment due for sin will inevitably occur after death through purification in Purgatory.

We see a beautiful and vivid example of the act of forgiveness and God the Father’s love for all mankind, demonstrated through the Parable of the Prodigal Son. And this is internalized with even greater emphasis through a scene taken from the 1977 British-Italian television miniseries directed by Franco Zeffirelli entitled Jesus of Nazareth.

The scene opens with the Apostles speaking amongst themselves about Christ’s decision to associate with a public sinner, their concern rooted in the public scandal it will cause for Christ to visit the house of Matthew the Tax Collector. And, they believe within the depths of their hearts, that, if He insists on making this visit — Christ, Himself, a Rabbi, will be defiled.

It is here, that we witness the turmoil occurring within the heart of St. Peter. On one level, recognizing that he is called to follow the Christ, in stark contrast with his desire to remain a simple fisherman. St. Peter, who, until this moment, had been very familiar and in control of his surroundings. His boat, his nets, all of the implements he required to perform a single function, catching fish, the only profession he had ever known, in order that he provide for his family. It is impossible to ignore the internal struggle St. Peter is enduring, as he ponders these two realities.

Thus, he makes the choice to remain by the sea, sending the other Apostles to locate the Christ, that, they might convince Him not to enter the house of Matthew the Tax Collector. And, when they find Jesus, they plead with Him, stating the fact that they have lived honorable lives and made many sacrifices. That, the people He is intent on visiting are common thieves, prostitutes, they who practice usury, violent and Godless people. They stand in wonder at how Christ could possibly choose to sit down and eat with these people, they, who would spend their lives in orgies and perversions. But, Christ replies, “I have not come to call the virtuous to repentance, but sinners,” and “they might enter the Kingdom of Heaven, even before you.”

Then Christ turns toward St. James gazing intensely and declares: “the Heart of the Law — is Mercy.” It is with this statement, that Christ enters the house of Matthew the Tax Collector while His Apostles remain at the entrance of the dwelling, watching and waiting attentively. Christ searches the crowd to find Matthew and upon locating him states: “Peace be with you.” Matthew replies: “Thank you for coming to my house, Rabbi.” Christ quickly identifies a place to recline, while a good number of those present implore him to speak. But, Matthew protests sharply, entreating his guests to let the Rabbi eat first, and, that, once He has finished eating; He will speak to all gathered. Nevertheless, Christ agrees to tell them a story: The Parable of the Prodigal Son:

There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.” And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.’” And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And they began to make merry. Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.” But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!” And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” (Lk 15:11–32)

What becomes apparent during the recounting of this parable, and, yet, in many ways remains inexplicable, is that the younger son freely chooses sin over and above the loving relationship he has had with his father from the time he was born. He is so blinded by the idea of material wealth – the delusion, that his course of action will bring him true happiness and fulfillment, that he opts to reject the love of his father. And, it is due to this manifest reality, that many who encounter this parable, identify with and even overlook, the hardheartedness of the elder son.

The self-centeredness, the disrespect and injustice the younger son perpetrates in demanding a share of his father’s estate, and this, while his father is still living. A loving son, should only receive an inheritance upon the death of his father. Wealth, that the younger son had little or no part in acquiring. Nevertheless, the younger son is resolved to abandon his father and elder brother in order that he travel to a foreign country and squander this inheritance on loose living.

But it is not until the younger son experiences a major trial, a famine, an event that forces him to reflect upon his own actions — not only upon the fact that he has lost all means to feed himself, but also upon the choice he made to disown and abandon his father and elder brother.

After considering his predicament, the younger son decides that it would be best for him to “join himself to a citizen” of this foreign country (or, accept employment feeding swine for this citizen) presumably to earn enough money to feed himself. But, in carrying out this position, the younger son is such in need of food that he longs to eat the pods he was hired to distribute. This absolute privation motivates the younger son to reflect upon the fact that his father’s servants have always had enough bread to eat. His heart is so convicted, that he is moved to return to his father and say: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” It is not until this moment that the younger son truly understands the gravity of his sin; not until this moment has he possessed true contrition and remorse for what he has done. And we know this through his response: that he is not worthy to be called his son because he has sinned before heaven and against his father, who has always loved him unconditionally.

And, so, the younger son makes the choice to embark on a journey back to his own country. While he is still a great distance from his father’s house, his father catches sight of his son, runs out to meet him, embraces him, and kisses him. Here, we must reflect upon the question: does the father simply happen to catch sight of his son as he returns home? No, the father out of love for his son watches daily, he is ever vigilant and eternal in his hope that his son would return to him. The father does not bear a grudge, nor consider the pain and suffering he endured when his younger son demanded a share of his estate, choosing to abandon him for a foreign country only to squander this new found wealth on loose living. The father is simply overjoyed to see his son and desires always to welcome him back into his home.

The father is so overwhelmed with love for his son that he seemingly ignores his words, and without hesitation summons his servants saying: “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And, the father not only welcomes his son home, but he restores him to condition greater than he held previously, dressing him in the finest robe and placing a ring on his finger.

The father witnessed the death of love within the heart of his son, when his son chose sin over his father’s love and that of Our Father in Heaven. And now, the father has come to witness the rebirth of that love in the heart of his son, through God’s grace and his son’s remorse and repentance. The joy of the father embodies the passage taken from scripture: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:7).

At this point, the parable shifts from a focus on the younger son to the elder son. And, as the elder son draws near to his home after working the entire day in the fields, he hears the sounds of music and dancing. The elder son calls out to one of the servants that he might ascertain the meaning of this revelry and the servant replies: “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.” As the elder son hears this explanation, he is incensed and refuses to enter the house. It is at this point, that the father exits the house that he might plead with his elder son. But, instead of hearing his father out, we see that he is quick to answer:

Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!

While it is true that the elder son has worked dutifully for his father throughout the years. And this fact seems, in some sense, to justify the elder brother’s anger toward his younger sibling, who chose to abandon his father and himself, dissipating the entire share of his father’s estate. With this in mind, we must ponder the following questions: did the elder son carry out this work with a proper intention? Did he wake up every morning and go out to complete his duties with a genuine love for his father and out of gratitude for all the blessings he had received: a roof over his head, food on the table, the love of his father? Or, did he take all of this for granted? Was there a certain utility to his actions? Did he hope to receive a larger share of his father’s estate when his father passed away, due to the fact that his younger brother had effectively disowned his father and himself? Was the elder brother consumed with resentment for his younger brother, was he obstinate and unforgiving, refusing even to consider the idea of reconciling with his younger brother?

In considering the elder son’s response, one would have to conclude, that at least some of the issues raised here are true:

Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!

When the elder brother states: “these many years I have served you,” and “I never disobeyed your command”: his manner is very unlike a son who is speaking to his father, and, more like a servant who is speaking to his master. A son, in the true sense of the word, would not use phrasing like “I have served you,” nor “disobeyed your command.” The elder brother continues: “you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.” In effect, this statement underscores that he is expecting something in addition to what he has already received, without the thought of showing gratitude for all of the blessings he received in his life. Lastly, when the elder brother states “but when this son of yours came,” he indicates that the younger brother is merely the father’s son; no longer does he acknowledge the younger son as his brother. Thus, the elder brother seems to have made the choice to disown his younger brother, to cut him off from the possibility of reconciliation, harboring only unforgiveness and resentment for his brother in the depths of his heart.

We gain a striking insight into the father’s response, as we return to the scene taken from the miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. As Christ moves through the words of the elder brother to the words of the father, he physically turns toward St. Peter, who has been standing at the entrance of the dwelling. He stares into the eyes of St. Peter and addresses the words of the father in the parable to him: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead,” and then Christ turns toward St. Matthew (the former tax collector) and states: “and is alive again.” At this, St. Matthew stands up in acknowledgment that these words were directed to him. Then Christ looks at St. Peter again and states: “he was lost and is found.” With these words, St. Peter is cut to the heart, he hesitates for a moment and then enters the house walking toward Christ with the rest of the Apostles following him. St. Peter and the other Apostles simply enter the house without concern, realizing that their association with Christ is more important than their fear of being defiled. St. Peter stops in close proximity to Christ and states: “Forgive me Master, I am” — and then stammering with great emotion: “I am just a stupid man.” Christ smiles ever so slightly, gazes at St. Peter with great love, and places His hand on his shoulder, leading St. Peter in the direction of St. Matthew until both men are face to face. St. Peter and St. Matthew stare at each other piercingly, while Christ continues to look on, then St. Peter places his hand on the shoulder of St. Matthew, and finally, St. Matthew places his hand on St. Peter’s hand.

Here we must see, the act of forgiveness is absolutely essential to our lives and even more essential toward our Eternal Life. And Our Father in Heaven is always ready and waiting to forgive us if we repent of our sins from the depths of our hearts and seek out His forgiveness within the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But this requires that we ask for the Lord’s assistance in fully recognizing our faults and failings, the many ways we have hurt and offended our neighbor. That we might step out in faith as the younger son, making ourselves humble and vulnerable before God and man, that God hear the true contrition we have come to internalize. And that the person we have offended may come to realize the true sorrow we bear for that offense.

In this way, the person we have offended might be granted the opportunity to forgive us from the heart, instead of harboring a grudge or resentment against us. If Our Lord has been so gracious in forgiving our transgressions, who are we to withhold our forgiveness from our brothers and sisters in Christ? For, then, we are like the unforgiving servant who after having his debt forgiven, demanded repayment from a fellow servant, even to the point of having him imprisoned until he should pay the entire debt. If we choose this path, we must consider the Lord’s warning:

“You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. (Mt 18:32–35)

“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:14–15).

  1. All Scripture quotations will come from the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994).
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City / Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana ; United States Catholic Conference, 1997),  no. 1446, its footnote reading: “Tertullian, De Paenit. 4, 2: PL 1, 1343; cf. Council of Trent (1547): DS 1542.”
  3. Its footnote reading: “Cf. Mt 5–7; Rom 12–15; 1 Cor 12–13; Gal 5; Eph 4–6; etc.”
  4. Quoting Council of Trent (1551): DS 1676.
  5. Its footnote reading: “Council of Trent (1551): DS 1680 (ND 1626); cf. Ex 20:17; Mt 5:28.”
  6. CCC 1460’s footnote reading: “Rom 8:17; Rom 3:25; 1 Jn 2:1–2; cf. Council of Trent (1551): DS 1690.”
  7. Faustina, Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul (Stockbridge, MA: Marians of the Immaculate Conception, 2000), para. 699.
Rev. Kenneth M. Dos Santos, MIC About Rev. Kenneth M. Dos Santos, MIC

Rev. Kenneth M. Dos Santos, MIC, is a member of the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception and was ordained a priest in 2010. He is currently serving as Provincial Secretary for the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy Province, located in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He holds a BA in Philosophy from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and an MDiv from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC.

Comments

  1. Avatar Abraham Mattam says:

    Fr. Forgive everyone and have no enemy

    • Beautifully explained. As you say, probably a misunderstood parable of our interior lives, not realizing the offense to our Merciful Lord! Thank you Father.

  2. Avatar Aurelia Bertocchi says:

    Thank you for this in depth explanation. So many of us do not understand this and more of our priests should explain it to their congregation. So many feel intimadated to go to confession. We need more of this.
    I will share your writing.
    God bless you!

  3. Dear Rev. Kenneth Dos Santos,
    Thank you for your reflections on forgiveness. The example of the Prodigal son is a perfect one, but what happens when the person does not admit the wrong done and does not ask to be forgiven.
    I would appreciate an answer at your convenience.

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