No Justice Without Forgiveness

(Homily for Octave of Christmas, New Year's Day)

The full title of today’s feast is: The Octave Day of Christmas: Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The eighth day after birth held great importance for Jewish people. On that day children received their name and, in the case of a male, the rite of circumcision. (Lk 2:21) For that reason this feast is sometimes referred to as The Circumcision or Feast of the Holy Name.*

This Mass contains many evocative themes, but our Holy Father has announced one which stands out because of its urgency. He has written a powerful message for The World Day of Prayer for Peace: NO PEACE WITHOUT JUSTICE NO JUSTICE WITHOUT FORGIVENESS. In it he gives a moving personal testimony about his days as a seminarian under Nazi occupation and later as a priest and bishop, when the Soviets oppressed the Polish nation. More than almost any man alive today, he witnessed firsthand the great evils of the twentieth century.

When he invites us to forgive, he does so not as a Pollyanna or as someone with illusions about the “basic goodness of all human beings.” The pope knows real evil exists, the mysterium iniquitatis – and that evil men commit evil deeds. The pope refers specifically to the “terrible crime” of September 11. Yet he calls us to forgive not just as individuals, but as nations.

This is not the first time the Holy Father has made such a bold appeal. As a young bishop, he participated in writing a remarkable pastoral letter. Dated Nov. 18, 1965, the Letter of Reconciliation of the Polish Bishops to the German Bishops contained the famous words “ We forgive and ask forgiveness”. Many Poles were outraged. How can I forgive the ones who tortured and murdered my father, my sister, my neighbor? And what have we done that we need to ask forgiveness of them? In spite of the furor it caused, it turned out to be a courageous pastoral gesture which did much to bring healing between the two peoples.

The pope is asking for a similar forgiveness today between nations. Even though we say, “we believe in the forgiveness of sins” it is hard for us to forgive. For some people, forgiveness means pretending nothing happened. The pope is quite clear that the first step is to identify evil and do all one can to resist it. Unless we believe men can freely choose between good and evil, there is no point to forgiveness.

Forgiveness does not mean to make excuses for the other person. While we should always look for mitigating circumstances (he was tired, distracted, physically upset, etc.) true forgiveness can only happens between human beings who acknowledge free and deliberate choices.** Dogs have bit me on different occasions, but the best I could do was try to understand them, not forgive them, because I know they were simply following their “programming.” I did not feel the same about their owners. Them I needed to forgive. In one case it only happened after the owner offered to buy me a new pair of pants.

While forgiveness begins by recognizing that true offenses exist, it does not stop there. Some folks imagine they have forgiven because they say, “That’s OK.” However, the next time they have an argument, they are quick to bring up the offense. Forgiveness is not like putting money into a bank account for future use, but rather erasing the account. The original words of the Lord’s Prayer say, “Forgive us our debts as we cancel the debts of others.” It doesn’t necessarily mean to “forget” but to never make use of the offense in any future dealings with the person. As the pope has pointed out, there is no peace without justice, but for us men true justice is possible only with forgiveness.

After tonite’s Mass we will pray the Rosary for Peace – all fifteen decades. Starting at midnight, it will be a beautiful way to begin the New Year. As we pray earnestly for peace in year 2002, we ask the Lord to help us build just relationships. Peace with justice will only be possible if, as individuals and nations, we can learn to forgive.


*That this Feast falls on New Year’s Day is somewhat coincidental. Before Europe adopted the Gregorian calendar (1582), it was most common to consider March 25 (Annunciation Day) as the start of the New Year.

**We live in a therapeutic culture which sees evil in medical terms. For example, we rightly recognize that alcoholism is a kind of sickness, that is, a condition the sufferer did not freely choose. Still, we do not give a free pass to a drunk driver. Or to use a more extreme case: A pedophile could be viewed as a very sick individual, driven by a terrible compulsion. But who would excuse a man who rapes a child? We are always eventually brought back to the fact of human freedom, of right and wrong. Even a thoroughgoing secularist (materialist) like Carl Sagan could not avoid those realities. After carefully explaining that morality was simply a product of evolution, Sagan himself - with no hint of irony - asked us to do the right thing. That is, to make sacrifices to preserve the planet, save endangered species, fund scientific research, etc. If that were not enough, he informs us that, like the lowliest amoeba, our most basic drive is to have the maximum number of offspring and then he tells we must resist that impulse or risk destroying the planet. Like many materialists, as a man he was better than his philosophy.

Versión Castellana

Bulletin (Christmas Surprise, Rosary for Peace, Meaning of Forgiveness)


From Archives:

New Years 2009: Three Lessons for the New Year
2006: The Lord Bless You
2005: Keep Out of His Way
2004: Signs of Hope Among Teenagers
2003: A Tradition Worth Fighting For
2002: No Justice Without Forgiveness

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Bulletin: Wedding in Arandas

(Plus pictures of Blessed Luis' Granddaughters)

Peru Fire Kills Hundreds - Help Needed

Human Cloning: A Catholic Perspective (How the Unthinkable Became Inevitable)