While it is necessary for our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being for us to extend forgiveness, it is just as necessary that we seek forgiveness when we have offended another.
But, saying “I’m sorry” is not enough. We must not only “talk the talk,” we must “walk the walk.” Our sincerity regarding forgiveness is displayed in our actions. We must have “a firm purpose of amendment.”
This means that our behavior needs to change. The depth of our sorrow is measured by the length we go to avoid the sinful action in the future.
In addition to “a firm purpose of amendment,” true contrition compels us to make up for the “loss” we have caused.
If we have stolen, we must make restitution. If we have ruined a good name, we must work to restore it. If we have slighted a friend, we should perform an act of kindness to make up for it. This is the nature of repentance. It shows we are truly sorry and that we want to fill the gap our injury has caused.
One way to encourage our ability to “walk the walk” is to incorporate a penitent attitude into our life. St. Josemaria Escriva exhorts us to a penitent life when he writes:
“We need to smooth off the rough edges a little more each day – just as if we were working in stone or wood – and get rid of the defects in our own lives with a spirit of penance, with small mortifications … Jesus Christ will later make up for whatever is still lacking” (The Forge, #403).
Our sacrificial acts, no matter how small, work to smooth our “rough edges” which then eases the friction between ourselves and others. Their yield is a softened spirit tempered by patience and humility.
Seeking Pardon In Special SituationsOf course, there are times when it is not possible to seek the forgiveness of another in the traditional sense. We may remember an incident from our past and may have lost touch with the party long ago. It may be that we remember an offense we committed against someone who is now deceased.
We may have slighted a complete stranger – a motorist on the road, a clerk in a store, a waiter or waitress, a fellow shopper in a grocery line. And then, there may be those who could pose a serious threat to us if we sought their forgiveness.
What do we do about these situations? Though we may not be able to seek pardon from someone directly, we still are called to ask forgiveness. How can this be done?
If We Have Lost TouchIf we have lost touch with the party we offended we can still ask for forgiveness from them spiritually. Remembering the incident, acknowledging our fault, “confessing” our fault to God, and asking Him to release the party we injured from the consequences of our offense is a valuable prayer exercise for this situation.
We may wish to remember this person in our prayers for a period of time trusting that God is at work within them. It is true that in this life we may never see the effects of our prayer in the person we offended, but the release we feel within our own heart will testify to the power of the prayer we have prayed.
If the Person is DeceasedLosing a family member is always a painful and grief-filled moment. But, when we lose someone before we have patched up a difference, reconciled a quarrel, or sought reconciliation, the loss is excruciating. No one knows the day or the hour when our life, or the life of a loved one, will be taken from us. Therefore, we should never put off seeking pardon and reconciliation for any length of time.
St. Paul’s admonition to resolve our differences before the sun goes down is excellent advice. But, the unfortunate reality is that far too few heed it, and family members do die estranged. Is it possible to seek pardon from someone who is deceased? The answer is “yes.”
Remember that in the mystical body of Christ we are all united. This unity is called the communion of saints. Three categories define the communion of saints. The Church Triumphant consists of all the saints in heaven. The Church Suffering is comprised of all the souls in purgatory. And the Church Militant is formed by all of us still living.
Because we are one in Christ, though death may separate us physically, we remain united spiritually. Speaking to this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes Lumen Gentium, a document from the Second Vatican Council, which states:
“ When the Lord comes in glory, and all his angels with him, death will be no more and all things will be subject to him. But at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is’” (#954, quoting LG 49).
“So it is that the union of the wayfarers with the brethren who sleep in the peace of Christ is in no way interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the constant faith of the Church, this union is reinforced by an exchange of spiritual goods” (#955, quoting LG 49).
One “exchange of spiritual goods” that is possible through the unity of the communion of saints is the spiritual good of asking pardon and extending it if necessary.
The death of the party we offended need not put to death our opportunity to ask for forgiveness. By no means is this the best-case scenario. As was already mentioned, we must strive to resolve all differences in this life. But it can bring peace, comfort, and consolation to know that forgiveness can be sought and given to those who are no longer living.
But, how can we show contrition and true repentance to a deceased person? The Catechism gives us the answer. It states:
‘...because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins she offers her suffrages for them.” Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them but also of making their intercession for us effective” (#958, quoting LG #50).
Thus, in an attitude of contrition and penitence, brotherly love and compassion, we should augment our request for pardon of the deceased by praying for him. We can have a mass celebrated for the person we offended, pray a rosary for him, or make a donation to the poor in the person’s memory. These are acts of love and true Christian charity, and through them we live out our life of faith.
If We Have Slighted A StrangerWe may be surprised to discover that we need to seek pardon from someone we offended even though we have no on-going relationship with him. However, nothing in Scripture gives us permission to be uncharitable to strangers. In fact, it shows us just the opposite (cf. Luke 10:25-36).
Our Christian witness is meant to be a source of inspiration and grace for all of those whose paths we cross. When we are rude to a salesclerk, huffy with a waiter or waitress, irritable with a telephone solicitor, impatient (or worse!) with a fellow motorist, grumpy with a delivery boy, or quick with a customer, we sin against charity and we sin through poor example.
How do we seek pardon especially when we may never see or talk to that person again?
First, let us hope we catch ourselves in midstream and make an apology on the spot. This may not be possible in the midst of traffic, but it certainly is in most other situations.
If we lack the wherewithal to immediately ask forgiveness, then we should take the incident into our prayer time and spiritually ask for pardon. Our repentance can be shown by going out of our way to be kind to individuals we meet who are in similar capacities, asking our Lord to apply the grace of our charitable action to the person with whom we are currently interacting and to the person we had offended.
Of course, we should offer a prayer on behalf of the individual we slighted – a Hail Mary, Glory Be, or Our Father may be the “words” we use to “ask” him for forgiveness. In addition, we should examine ourselves regularly to see if our “casual” behavior speaks to our Christian faith. The way we conduct our life and our daily example should be a light leading others to Jesus Christ.
If The Person May Pose A ThreatThere are some circumstances when an injury we have caused has been so serious or so severe that the party we offended may seek some kind of emotional or physical retaliation. Common sense and prudence, then, must guide our interaction with him.
Perhaps in these situations it is best to ask for pardon spiritually, and then have a mass celebrated for them. We do not want our desire for pardon to be a source of temptation for the other party. We may well be acting more charitably by keeping our distance than by seeking their forgiveness in a traditional way.
During this Advent season, let us resolve to forgive those who have offended us and to seek forgiveness from those whom we have offended. In this way, we will truly make our hearts receptive and ready to receive the Fullness of Truth who is Jesus the Christ.
Today’s Spiritual Exercise:
- What is my attitude toward asking for the pardon of others? What part of it is most difficult for me? Take this difficulty to your time of prayer and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal what sin or imperfection this difficulty may be rooted in. Take that sin to the Sacrament of Penance.
- Is there a person from my past from whom I need to seek forgiveness? Am I willing to do so? Why or why not? Given current circumstances, how can I best achieve this goal?
- Is there a person currently in my life from whom I need to seek forgiveness? How can I show my sincerity and repentance?
- From whom do I need to seek pardon that fits into the “special situations” category? Make a list. Develop a strategy for each and engage the process. Look for the effects of your actions in your spiritual and emotional life. What does this tell you about the power of forgiveness – seeking it and extending it?
Copyright 2020. Johnnette Benkovic Williams. All rights reserved.