Reconciliation and the Call to be Ambassadors of Forgiving Love

Reconciliation is a way of being that engages a person or group in an ongoing process of forgiving another or others’ debts.  A life of reconciliation is steeped in mercy.  According to Megan McKenna,

If we are forgiven and accept the mercy of God, then we are required in justice to forgive all who walk with us.  We can exclude no one from the experience of that forgiveness… whether for trivial slights or monstrous injustices.[1]

Reconciliation is a key theme in the scriptures, which portray salvation history as God’s leading humankind back to Godself after the Fall, which disrupted the harmonious relationship of all of creation with God.  The New Testament tells the story of Jesus, the Word of God, who combined the creator/creature relationship within Himself and effected the new creation of global reconciliation through His life, death, and resurrection.

At the heart of Jesus’ public life is reconciliation.  During these brief years, He spoke of the need to be reconciled to one’s neighbor before bringing one’s gift to the altar. (Mt. 5.23)  Jesus told Peter that he should forgive others seventy times seven times.  (Mt. 18.22)  In one of His beatitudes, Jesus emphasizes the importance of engaging in peacemaking activity.  (Mt. 5. 23-24)  In His parable about the prodigal son, He sketches a portrait of a contrite son and a father with a forgiving heart who provides a lavish feast to celebrate the return of his own flesh and blood who deeply offended him.

On Easter Sunday evening, the resurrected Jesus committed His ministry of reconciliation to His disciples.  (Jn. 20.23)  Thus, He commissioned all who follow Him to continue His healing mission.  Such peacemaking activity entails living a life that promotes harmony in our world.  To engage in the ministry of reconciliation is to act as Jesus acts, i.e., to say repeatedly to those who offend you: I love you.

According to Robert Schreiter, the “perspective gained in the moment of reconciliation is the perspective God takes.”[2] This is so since the reconciliation process entails consciously focusing, as God does, on the good of the other and acknowledging and affirming his or her worth.  It involves understanding that another’s doing is never the totality of his or her being.

Essential to reconciliation is humility, i.e., viewing oneself as one really is, with strengths and weaknesses, pluses and minuses, virtues and faults.  Through embracing one’s humanness, one is able to accept the humanity of others.  Prayer is of utmost importance in this regard, for in communicating with God one develops a heart like unto God’s compassionate heart.

Reconciliation is a liberating act that sets the other(s) and oneself free.  By forgiving another, one walks in the freedom of fellowship with God, for without interpersonal reconciliation, one cannot be reconciled with God.  Bernard Cooke notes the ongoing need for reconciliation when he asserts:

No human group, no Christian community is without some friction and some alienation of individuals from individuals or groups from groups.  One of the most common mistakes we make in communities is to hide such differences, to carry on as if they do not exist, to avoid admitting them lest they openly divide the community. Yet, these divisions can be healed only if they are recognized and dealt with.[3]

 

Sacraments that Celebrate God’s Forgiving Love        

From this general discussion of reconciliation, let us turn our attention now to Baptism, Eucharist, and Reconciliation as sacraments that celebrate God’s forgiving love of human beings. Baptism is the basic sacrament of reconciliation, since it is the first sacrament for the forgiveness of sin.  Birth into reconciled life with God occurs through reception of this sacrament.

Following Baptism, the premier sacrament of reconciliation is the Eucharist.  As Jean-Marie Tillard notes:

… the Eucharist is … the sacramental presence and communication of the act which remits sins; as the remembrance of the expiation of the cross, it applies that expiation to those who celebrate the memorial by putting them in touch, through the bread and the cup of the meal, with the ‘once and for all’ of the paschal event itself, and calls down on the whole world the infinite mercy of God.[4]

In the early Christian Church, venial sins committed after Baptism were forgiven especially by the Eucharist and also by personal and communal prayer, fasting,  almsgiving, good works, and fraternal correction. In the 3rd century, the Church Father Origen stressed the importance of the Eucharist as the place for the forgiveness of sins.   The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts that “Through the Eucharist those who live from the life of Christ are fed and strengthened.  It is a remedy to free us from our daily faults and to preserve us from mortal sins.”[5]

The Sacrament of Reconciliation, which heals the whole person, celebrates the gift of God’s forgiving, shaloming mercy and calls Christians to live in peace.  According to Megan McKenna,

To accept the forgiveness and mercy of God is to accept the demand that we live justly and mercifully, forgiving as God does, with no strings attached.[6]

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, through the celebration of God’s forgiveness of the penitent’s sins, the true minister Jesus draws the person into a renewed commitment to the way of the gospel.  The ritual of this sacrament insists that one’s sins harm others in Christ’s Body and, thus, reception of the sacrament includes reconciliation with one’s sisters and brothers who have been hurt by one’s sins.

Historically, the earliest type of this sacrament was canonical penance, which emerged as a Church practice in the 3rd century.  The baptized Christian who had committed a grave sin came before the community during the Eucharistic celebration and entered into the Order of Penitents.  In a gesture of blessing, the community leader imposed hands on the penitent and assigned him or her penance that lasted several years on average.  During the penitent’s period of penance, she or he would stand or kneel at the door of the Church and request the prayers of the community gathered for Eucharist.  When the period of public penance was completed, the penitent was restored to fullness of life in the community through participation in the Eucharist.  Noteworthy is the fact that this reconciliation did not include the utterance of any words of absolution of the penitent’s sin.

By the 6th century, Irish monks developed the modality of confessing one’s sins to a lay “soul friend” from whom one received the assurance of God’s forgiveness.  There were no words of absolution involved in this ritual.  Instead, there were prayers of praise and thanksgiving for God’s mercy and goodness.

The reconciliation experience that the Irish monks introduced gradually developed into sacramental confession of a penitent to a priest who pronounced words of absolution.  So successful was private confession that the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 CE proclaimed that every Christian who reached the age of discernment had to receive private confession once a year.

In the 16th century, the Council of Trent decreed that, at least once a year, Christians must confess their mortal sins. The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats the Council of Trent’s decree regarding the necessity of annual reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation for serious sin. Regarding devotional confession of venial sins, the new Catechism asserts that it

… helps us form our conscience and fight against evil tendencies; it lets us be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit.  By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as He is merciful.[7]

The following excerpt from new Catechism emphasizes the efficacy of the Sacrament of Reconciliation:

The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being where he regains his innermost truth.  He is reconciled with his brethren whom he has in some way offended and wounded.  He is reconciled with the Church.  He is reconciled with all creation. [8]

Despite the lack of gender inclusive language in this quote, it, nevertheless, positively points out that the experience of this sacrament can contribute considerably to the deepening of one’s commitment to radical gospel living.

Conclusion

Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch author who survived the Holocaust, relates the following personal story regarding forgiveness.   After being released from the Ravensbruck camp where her sister Betsie died, Corrie lectured widely on the need to forgive enemies.  One evening after her presentation, Corrie was greeted by a man who had been an SS guard at the shower room in the processing center at the camp where she and her sister were imprisoned.  The former guard told Corrie how grateful he was to hear her message that God had washed his sins away.  Immediately, Corrie flashed back to a room full of mocking men, heaps of clothing and her sister’s pain ridden pale face. Then, as the man attempted to shake her hand, Corrie found herself frozen, unable to respond to his gesture.  As angry, vengeful thoughts raced through her mind, she saw the sin of them.  She prayed to Jesus to help her forgive this former enemy.  Feeling not the slightest spark of charity for this former SS guard, Corrie asked Jesus for His forgiveness, since she was unable to forgive the man.  When she finally took the man’s hand, she was amazed at the current of love that passed through her hand to his.  And so Corrie Ten Boom discovered that it is on God’s mercy and love that the world’s healing hinges.

Corrie’s narrative reminds us that it is only through God’s grace that reconciliation can take place. As noted in this essay, reconciliatory activities are multiple.   No matter what are our entryways into the peacemaking process, it is important to remember that God’s way of being and acting is mercy and that God calls and graces us to be ambassadors of forgiving love.

Like Corrie, Venerable Catherine McAuley (foundress of the Sisters of Mercy), modeled what it means to exercise this ambassadorship of reconciliation.   Reflecting on Catherine as reconciler, Angela Bolster writes:

Forgiveness and reconciliation were interwoven strands of Catherine’s promotion of charity in her communities.  Without this virtue, she cautioned her Sisters that their works would be ‘froth before God, devoid of all merit’.  Indeed, her success in guiding her Sisters along this path towards the perfection of charity seems to have amazed her, given the following extract from her letter of December 1839 to Sister M. Elizabeth Moore: ‘One thing is remarkable: no breach of charity ever occurred among us.  The sun never, I believe, went down on our anger.  This is our only boast’.[9]

Like Catherine and Corrie, we, too, are called by God to commit ourselves to the ministry of reconciling forgiveness and healing love and to do so to the best of our ability in a world that hungers and thirsts for Mercy.

 

Dr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM is Professor of Theology and Chair of the On-Campus Theology Program at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.

 

[1] Megan McKenna, Rites of Justice: The Sacraments and Liturgy as Ethical Imperatives (New York: Orbis Books, 1997), 144.

[2] Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S., Ministry of Reconciliation: Spirituality and Strategies  (New York: Orbis Books, 1998), 50.

[3] Bernard Cooke, Sacraments and Sacramentality (Mystic CT: Twenty-Third Publications, Revised Edition, 1994), 212.

[4] Jean-Marie Tillard, “”The Bread and Cup of Reconciliation” in Sacramental Reconciliation, ed. Edward Schillebeeckx (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 47.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), #1436, 400.

[6] McKenna, Rites of Justice, 143.

[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1458, 406.

[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1469, 410.

[9] Angela Bolster, R.S.M., Venerable Catherine McAuley:Liminal for Mercy (Cork, Ireland: D. & A. O’Leary Ltd., 1998), 20.

 

 

 

Catherine McAuley’s Option for the Poor

Catherine McAuley (foundress of the Sisters of Mercy) grounded her option for the poor in her special devotion to Christ’s passion. For Catherine, the crucified Christ was identified with the poor. Christ’s complete self-divestment on the cross in the name of love deeply inspired her to follow Him in living in solidarity with the poor.

Catherine expressed her preferential love of the poor by embracing a life of simplicity. She Catherine McAuleyinsisted, for instance, that she be the last to be served at meals in her community. This action demonstrated her desire to identify with the poor who seldom if ever are first to be seated at table and then have to accept whatever is left to eat. Catherine’s way of viewing dress demonstrated her resolve to live out her option for the poor. She often “deprived herself of articles of dress. . . to relieve the necessities of her neighbors.”[1] Regarding dress, Catherine advised her Sisters:

Let us even love to want what is convenient and necessary to us, and rejoice, if possible, when we are not supplied with everything we require or wish for, since we are poor Religious who, like the poor, must be satisfied to want conveniences.[2]

Prayer was a central part of Catherine’s reaching out in love to the unemployed, illiterate, sick and dying poor. She began and ended her works of Mercy with prayer. She urged her Sisters to live out their option for the poor in a similar contemplative fashion. In so doing, she and her Sisters acknowledged
doing Mercy is God’s work, i.e., that God seeks to be present to the needy through others’ love of them.

Catherine considered herself privileged to love the poor of her day. She instructed her Sisters: “What an ineffable consolation to serve Christ himself in the person of the poor and to walk in the very same path which he trod!”[3] In the faces and lives of the poor, sick, and uneducated, Catherine met Christ. She sought out the poor to pour out Christ’s love upon them, writing in her Rule for her sisters:

Mercy, the principal path pointed out by Jesus Christ to those who are desirous of following Him, has in all ages of the Church elicited the faithful in a particular manner to instruct and comfort the sick and dying poor. (Original Rule, Chapter 3, Article 1)

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, R.S.M., teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College. The preceding is an excerpt from an article that appeared in The MAST Journal (Vol. 8, No.1 Fall 1997), and is shared here with permission from the author.

[1] A Sister of Mercy of the Diocese of Oklahoma, The Spirit of M. Catherine McAuley (Oklahoma City: Sisters of Mercy, Mt. St. Mary’s Academy, 1922), 8.

[2] Catherine McAuley, Familiar Instructions (St. Louis: Vincentian Press, 1927), 34.

[3] Ibid., 16.

About Our Foundress: The Educational Vision of Catherine McAuley

The educational vision of Venerable Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, Catherine McAuleyis rooted in Christian ideals and values. For Catherine, the ministry of education is, in essence, a work of Mercy, that is, a wholehearted, compassionate, and integral response to people’s learning needs. In her writings, Catherine views educational endeavors as a way to live out Jesus’ mandate to love others through enabling their personal and professional development, including attuning them to the importance of social responsibility.

Catherine grew up in an Irish society rampant with poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and religious bigotry against Catholics. In response to the needs of her day, she developed educational opportunities ranging from pre-school to the adult level. Thus, she sought to provide others, especially poor young women and children, the chance to improve their human situation. Clearly, Catherine understood that education is essential to the process of the betterment of both individuals and society.

Catherine McAuley possessed various personal qualities that enabled her to become an excellent educator. She was a visionary woman of keen intellect who inherited a propensity for independent thinking from her mother, Elinor. Catherine was open-minded and flexible. She readily adapted to changing circumstances and possessed a remarkable ability to be practically oriented. Her very way of being reflected her profound commitment to Christian values.

Catherine was consummately human and in her humanness is found her holiness. She looked upon love as the cardinal virtue and reminded her Sisters that charity refreshes and enlivens and that love of one’s neighbor is living proof of the love of God.[2] Catherine’s loving nature was visible in the compassionate way in which she welcomed poor persons into her life. She literally spent herself, her time, energy, talents, and financial resources, to enable the poor to live dignified lives. Throughout cities and villages in Ireland and England, Catherine and her Sisters provided economically disadvantaged persons food, clothing, shelter, and educational experiences rooted in Christian principles.

Daily, Catherine spent substantial time in prayer. Oftentimes, she rose early in the morning to eke out a segment from her busy schedule to rest in God’s presence. Such experiences taught her to trust God completely. In a letter to Sister M. Angela Dunne, for example, Catherine queries and then advises: “Tell me all the news you have about your school, sick poor, and your little children. … Put your whole confidence in God. He will never let you want necessities for yourself or your children.”[4]

According to Catherine, to be genuine, the work of the Mercy educator needs to be rooted in an ever deepening communion with God, the source of one’s generosity and courage in carrying out the tasks of one’s profession. Catherine viewed teaching as an act of prayer and praise of God. For her, to teach is to express in word and deed that God is Love. In essence, according to Catherine, the work of the Mercy educator is meant to be a potent expression of the love of God and others.

Referring to the cross of trials or opposition in life, Catherine perceptively notes that “Some great things which God designs to accomplish would be too much joy without a dash of bitterness in the cup.”[5] This reflection is applicable to the educator who experiences diminishments such as misunderstandings, the inability to respond to the needs of some students, or overwork. The educator understands, with Catherine, that experiences like these can occasion the birthing of some form of new life – a spirit of patience and humility, prayerfulness, acceptance of the cross, an attitude of mercy and love, and enthusiasm for service.         

In and through her abiding respect, love, and concern for the neediest of her day, Catherine demonstrated her commitment to the social justice dimension of her educational vision. She understood that to be merciful is to act justly by being in solidarity with poor persons. She was convinced that to live mercy entails extending practical, active love to starving, homeless, sick, uneducated, and unemployed persons. Catherine’s statement: “The poor need help today, not next week,”[6] conveys the urgency she felt for the neediest. She insisted that loving poor persons means empowering them, especially through education, to become the architects and agents of their own future. While consistently responding to people’s immediate needs for food, shelter and clothing, Catherine sought to effect systemic change by establishing educational institutions. Integral to her strategy for fostering such change, she not only established schools for the economically disadvantaged, but also founded pension schools in which middle-class students learned the importance of social responsibility.

Present-day Mercy educators, like those of us at Saint Joseph’s College, are called to follow in the footsteps of Catherine and her Sisters, who wholeheartedly committed themselves to live out an ethic of social justice. Today, such educators extend Catherine’s legacy in this regard by means of creative, innovative responses to the signs of our times.

In 1993, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas adopted the following statement concerning the mission of Mercy higher education

The Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas recognizes that higher education is integral to the mission of the Church and is an effective expression of the Mercy mission. The ministry expresses commitment to the pursuit of truth and knowledge and to the furtherance of the social, political, economic, and spiritual well-being of the human community.

Advancing this mission in the 21st century entails providing students rigorous, academically excellent liberal arts and professional preparation that promotes students’ holistic development within the context of the theological and ethical principles and values that Catherine embraced and embodied, including

  • The teachings of Jesus Christ and the heritage of the Catholic Church;
  • God’s Mercy and the call to live mercy;
  • Commitment to serving the needs of poor, sick, and uneducated persons;
  • A spirit of hospitality;
  • Reverence for each person and all other forms of creation;
  • Special sensitivity to the needs and status of women and children;
  • Active concern for and response to the needs of those who suffer material poverty;
  • Ecumenicity in embracing all persons who seek truth and moral values;
  • The primacy of life-impacting Christian learning and spiritual formation; and
  • An understanding of and response to local, national and global issues of social justice

Those of us who share in the ministry of Mercy higher education are called to uphold the values of mercy and justice that were uppermost in Catherine’s lived spirituality. In Catherine’s footsteps, we are commissioned to be heralds and agents of God’s good news of mercy and justice.

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, R.S.M. teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College.

[1] A Sister of Mercy of the Diocese of Oklahoma, The Spirit of M. Catherine McAuley (Oklahoma City: Sisters of Mercy – Mt. St. Mary’s Academy, 1922), 15.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 46, quoting Catherine McAuley.

[4] Roland Burke Savage, S.J., Catherine McAuley: The First Sister of Mercy (Dublin: M. H. Gill & Son, Ltd., 1949), 238, quoting Catherine McAuley.

[5] Familiar Instructions collected by first Sisters of Mercy (St. Louis: Vincentian Press, 192), 136.

[6] Bolster, 11, quoting Catherine McAuley.