During my formation, I spent a year working with Fr. Dan Barnett; it was a great blessing and I learned an incredible amount from him. One of his sayings has always struck me: “In a world without sin, there can be no forgiveness.” At a surface level this is pretty innocuous and straightforward statement: forgiveness necessarily follows sin, and if no one has sinned there is no need for anyone to be forgiven. It took me a while to realize the deeper significance of his statement. Sin and evil exist in the world whether or not we acknowledge it. However, when it goes unnamed we deny ourselves the tools of reconciliation. It is only through a broader recognition of sin, especially sin in our own lives that forgiveness becomes possible.
John’s account of the woman caught in adultery (John 8) bears this out beautifully. In an attempt to trap Christ in his two-fold mission: fulfillment of the law and the forgiveness of sins. St. Bede comments saying, “If [Jesus] determined that she was to be stoned, they would scoff at him inasmuch as he had forgotten the mercy that he was always teaching. If he prohibited the stoning, they would gnash their teeth at him, and, as they saw it, rightly condemn him as a doer of wicked deeds contrary to the law.” In many ways it was a great trap: two apparent options either one leading to Christs downfall. Yet, by drawing upon his testers’ own guilt and sinfulness, he was able to negotiate a third way, show mercy while not negating the law.
This event is a microcosm of the way in which God cultivates mercy and forgiveness in our own lives. When Peter asks Christ ““Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Mt 18:21-22). Christ goes on to explain through parable of the unforgiving Servant. In this parable one servant, having been forgiven a great debt by his master, refuses to forgive a much smaller debt to his fellow servant. In so doing, this unforgiving servant forfeits his own forgiveness.
Christ calls us to recognize the great debt incurred to God because of our sinfulness, and, having been forgiven that debt, to be forgiving in our own lives. We are to be so transformed by this forgiveness as to be judged by the very level of forgiveness that we mete out. Were we to contemplate our prayer a little more deeply we might hesitate to say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I know that I am not perfectly forgiving in my life. Even those whom I desire to forgive, or have chosen to forgive, I sometimes find that I continue to resent in my heart. Fortunately, there is hope that the grace of God will continue to work in my life but will only do so with my cooperation.
Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular is often criticized for making too much of sin and guilt. While, at times, excessive focus upon one’s own sinfulness can lead to despair, a recognition of one’s own sinfulness is necessary to truly appreciate the great gift of forgiveness that God extends to us. There are many opportunities to embark in such an exercise: at the beginning of nearly every Mass we “call to mind our sins so to prepare ourselves to celebrate these sacred mysteries.” We visit the sacrament of confession to make explicit our faults before Christ. At night, we examine our consciences asking God to forgive us our daily sins. All of these things help us to cultivate a greater sense, not simply of our sinfulness, but of God’s forgiveness. In seeing God’s forgiveness of us, in turn, we hopefully cultivate a greater forgiveness of others in our own lives.
All that being said, I fully recognize that, while forgiveness is always necessary, true reconciliation, at least in this life, is not always possible. We as humans have the unfortunate capacity to rupture our relationships to such a degree that it is not always possible to repair in this life. Sometimes that is because one party or the other is unwilling to make the changes necessary. Sometimes both parties may be of good will but full reconciliation is simply beyond the scope of this life. In faith, such situations ought bring about two responses in us: sadness at the loss in this life and hope, that in the fullness of time God will heal all wounds and divisions.
Our command to forgive as God forgives cannot be rightly understood as some mere practice that God has us engage in so as to prepare for heaven. Heaven is not the reward of a donut to small child who obeys himself at Mass. Rather, our call to forgive is intrinsic to the very nature of heaven. Without forgiveness how could we hope to spend eternity happy with somebody whom we cannot stand to spend ten minutes with now?
 Homilies on the Gospel I.25