Forgive Them, Father

The hardest people to forgive are those men called to be our spiritual fathers and shepherds who are blatantly and publicly inflicting wounds on the mystical body of the Church.

A few weeks ago, as I was leaving church, I fell into step with a fellow mom. She had missed most of the liturgy due to a young child who decided that he had simply had enough right around the Gospel. I have been in this situation myself many times, and I figured an encouraging word was needed.

“I feel like I need to change my name and find a new parish after today,” she joked in response.

“I don’t think anyone really minded too much,” I answered. “Besides, what’s a couple of grumpy stares? I was once yelled at from the pulpit in the middle of Mass!”

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On the drive home, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t thought about that episode in a few years. I had been trying to make a weekly habit of attending one daily Mass at a nearby church with two toddlers and a baby without the help of my husband, who had to be at work during the retiree-friendly Mass time. It was difficult to handle two toddlers and a baby in that space, which had been so poorly designed that the floor resounded like a drum and the chairs—not pews—squeaked their way across the floor at the slightest pressure. 

To make matters worse, there was nowhere to take a child, short of standing outside in a snowy parking lot. And on one particularly trying day, I got yelled at from the pulpit in the middle of Mass because we were being too loud. Perhaps a stronger mom would have stoically showed up the next week unflustered. I did not, and my weekday habit unfortunately floundered.

Driving home now years later, I thought to myself that the priest probably had meant well, though his pastoral approach had been atrocious. Someone had told me the priest had been harassed the week before by some inveterate grump who had demanded absolute quiet. Caught between the frying pan of a haranguing parishioner and the fire of a whining baby, the priest had made a poor move.

Now, as I tried to dismiss that bad memory, a voice piped up in my head to ask, Well, now, do you forgive him? I paused. I wasn’t sure. Finally, I decided that yes, I did. As a parent called to maintain saintly amounts of patience in the face of absurd situations, I shouldn’t start casting stones…they might bounce. I forgive you, I thought and put the whole thing out of my head.

Later that week, I discovered that the priest had died that Sunday morning, possibly right around the time I randomly thought of him and forgave him. I think the memory had been dredged up in my mind by his guardian angel, who had been flying around looking for extra grace to speed him on his way home. I am glad I managed in that moment, not knowing the urgency, to forgive him.

The first and most constant lesson Christians learn is that we are to forgive as Christ forgave. Forgiving without counting the cost. Forgiving seventy times seven times. “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” (Matthew 6:14-15). We have the most perfect act of forgiveness in the history of the world serving as our model—“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Yet, I have personally struggled with forgiveness, especially of my fellow Christians, since the world turned on its head in 2020. There are people I encounter every Sunday who, if I look at them for too long, I realize I have not truly forgiven yet for screaming at one of my children for not socially distancing or who angrily denied me access to Communion because I asserted my right to receive on the tongue. It is difficult to forgive, especially because I know that they are not repentant and would do it all over again at the drop of a hat. I have personally struggled with forgiveness, especially of my fellow Christians, since the world turned on its head in 2020. Tweet This

The hardest people to forgive are those men called to be our spiritual fathers and shepherds who are blatantly and publicly inflicting wounds on the mystical body of the Church, wounds that, even if directed at one member, tear at us all. A quick scroll through Catholic social media makes it depressingly clear that I am not alone in stumbling to forgive the cruelty and pettiness crashing down upon us. It is sometimes almost too hard to sit in church, feeling the sharp loss of what they have spitefully taken away. Praying for them by name feels like pulling teeth.

But just as the public scandal of a bad Catholic wounds the entire mystical body, so ordinary faithful Catholics can bandage up some of those wounds, in attempting to model the heroic forgiveness of Christ on the Cross. I often think of the little Narnian mice who nibbled at the ropes binding the bloody, desecrated body of the sacrificed Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: a gesture so seemingly fruitless and pointless and yet so loving and full of grace and power. Christian forgiveness is mostly a thankless sort of nibbling away in the dark, in the faith that it does more than it seems to.  

Who knows how long we must endure this scandalous papacy, and who knows how long we must suffer under cowardly or thuggish bishops. Obviously, good Catholics everywhere must faithfully oppose heterodoxy and scandal wherever and whenever it appears. But we must also start working on forgiving those who do not want and do not think they need our forgiveness—especially as it appears that several of these old men are drawing nearer to their eternal judgment.

I have started thinking of Christian forgiveness as a process rather than as a moment. I am trying to keep forgiving, knowing full well that I will probably have to try to forgive again and again. Perhaps those moments when I discover myself continuing to stew over the offense are nudges by someone’s beleaguered guardian angel who has not yet given up on the soul entrusted to his charge. Well, now, do you forgive him? I hope my guardian angel works as hard for me.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Mary Cuff

    Mary Cuff is an independent scholar, wife, and homeschooling mother. She holds a PhD in American literature from the Catholic University of America and has published in the Southern Literary Journal, Five Points, Mississippi Quarterly, and Modern Age. She teaches online high school classical rhetoric courses at Homeschool Connections.

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