ON FORGIVNESS – Conference at the Pontifical University of The Holy Cross (Rome)

Aurelio Porfiri

If there is a concept that is really difficult to accept in our modern culture, it is the one of forgiveness. It is not easy to forgive, it is not for me and it is not for anyone. This happens because when we are offended we are touched directly, in our own skin and soul, and we have some mechanisms of defense that react against the offender. It is not unnatural to feel the desire to retaliate against those that are hurting us or that we perceive doing so. So, I repeat, it is not strange to feel resentment if we are hurt. What is much worse is the revenge that is masked by a fake forgiveness, the attitude of those people who fake their true feelings to portray themselves as good people, when they seek revenge against those they perceive as hostile toward them with more subtle and cruel ways.

Indeed we can understand the value of forgiveness only when we put ourselves in a spiritual perspective. Saint Paul really helps us when in Ephesians 4 (31-32) said: “All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. (And) be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.” Only when we are able to make sense of our anger and will of revenge, to elevate these feelings and purify them, are able to recognize that we need to exercise forgiveness because also we are forgiven first. Because we know that we are in continuous need of forgiveness, so we may be more easily willing to forgive. It is not easy, it is really challenging, but it is good that we accept our weakness and try always to put ourselves in the right perspective.  And let us not forget how difficult is to forgive ourselves, probably the most challenging of all. When we struggle to forgive others, it become sometimes almost impossible to forgive ourselves, for the wrong we are doing to others or to our very self.

I would say that it’s necessary not to confuse the personal with the social. If someone has done me something wrong that affects society in different ways, I may forgive him or her but this does not prevent society from taking measures to prevent possible damage to other people. If someone goes around punching people in the face, and he or she punches me too, certainly I may forgive this person for the act, but society (the police in this case) has to stop him or her and held him accountable  for what he has done, also to give a lesson and to protect other people. So we need to understand that forgiving does not always remove the responsibility for what was done. That responsibility will stay and the person, even if forgiven by the one offended, may be considered accountable and has to pay a price for it.

We know that a nation can impose certain constraints that an individual cannot. A state can limit the freedom of people by putting them in prison — we cannot do that on an individual level. So, if we are able to distinguish these two levels, we can understand well what Saint Paul wants to teach us, as also stated in another passage in Colossians 3 (12-13): “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.” As Catholics we have to exercise our ability to forgive constantly because, as I have said, this ability does not certainly come easily.

These thoughts on forgiveness prompted in me because of an important meeting that took place on January 18, 2018 in the Saint John Paul II Aula Magna of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. Entitled “Rome Conference on Forgiveness,” the meeting was an attempt to involve scholars from different religious and cultural traditions to talk about this very topic.

Among the speakers were American Robert Enright, a pioneer on the studies about forgiveness. He talked about the science of forgiveness education. His topic was certainly interesting and attractive, coming from someone with no particular religious affiliations but with a long experience in the studies about forgiveness. He told the audience that forgiveness education is a necessity for humanity, to make the world a better place. Some of his insights were really powerful and it was also worth noting that he did not portray forgiveness as forgetting. He clearly said that wrong was always  wrong, but according to his experience, it is good to cultivate this virtue so to help us “to live better another day.”

Then there was Barbara Marchica, a pastoral counselor, who talked about forgiveness in a Christian context. She said, “The theme of forgiveness requires a continuous commitment between the theoretical and the experiential plane, because it asks precisely to be put into practice. Christianity is not an ideology, but a life’s experience. Therefore, it must be closely linked to the existential and relational level. The theme of forgiveness asks, to be such, a return on the anthropological level. It cannot be defined beforehand in accordance to an human experience.”

There were also speakers from the Islamic tradition, as the ambassador to the Holy See for Iraq, Omer Ahmed Kerim Berzinji and from the Jewish tradition such as Peta Pellach, Director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute of Jerusalem.

Other speakers concentrated on the issue of forgiveness on a political level, as the Italian Paola Binetti, member of the Italian parliament. Robert A Gahl, a professor of the Holy Cross University, presented a paper called “A philosophical argument for the duty to forgive, always.” His conclusions were summarized thus: “By overcoming the harm through the gift of forgiveness, by relinquishing all but the righteous anger ordered towards retribution, the victim is able to recover from the inflicted harm and even achieve a greater perfection in human fulfilment despite the loss caused by the aggressor’s violence. Aristotle’s psychology of anger needs to be read along with his philosophy of friendship to appreciate the need for forgiveness. Moreover, current advantages in cognitive behavioral therapy, in particular the versions of ‘mindfulness’ called ACT, offer therapeutic strategies to achieve rational ordering of one’s passions and full human perfection in accord with Aristotelian moral psychology.”

Alison Sutherland explored the theme of forgiveness for youth in war torn areas. This is what she said: “Forgiveness is one of the prime areas of healing.  If a victim is unable to forgive, they never free themselves of what has happened.  They remain a victim, giving power to the very person or thing which has caused the harm and pain.  They continue to inflict damage on themselves.  In being helped to forgive, they are helped to be free and to plan and live a future life.” She added:  “Forgiveness helps them move through these experiences.  Helps them see the big picture.  Helps them to face up to and perhaps accept circumstances and or people who have hurt or disappointed them.  Helps them to think about the bigger picture, about why their aggressors behaved as they did.  What drove them to do this?  Helps them to become informed and make considered judgements and decisions.  Helps them to know their own value and innocence.”

Of course we may see that this path is a very difficult one, probably necessary but not straightforward, and this for the very reason we explained at the very beginning: forgiveness is one of the most difficult virtues to exercise and should never be taken lightly or mentioned as it is easily within the reach of everyone.

At the end of the conference, the Vicar General of Opus Dei, Msgr Mariano Fazio, spoke about the insights of Pope Francis and St Josemaria Escrivá on charity and forgiveness.

It was certainly interesting to gather people from often very different walks of life and have them share their experience with forgiveness, a virtue that is in direly need in our modern times.

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