Fr. Mike preached this thought-provoking homily at the Western Province's House of Studies on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
Since the summer of 2004, I estimate I’ve taken nearly 1000 flights and gone through airport security around 500 times.
I bought slip-on shoes to ease the ordeal.
My hands and luggage have been swabbed for evidence of explosives, and I have a collection of sample-sized toiletries.
I’ve endured pat-downs more intimate than a celibate should ever expect to receive.
And, usually, I forget why all this is necessary. I’m lucky that way.
For many Americans, it’s not so easy to forget.
Not for the loved ones of the 2,819 people who died ten years ago today.
That’s the official count, so far as I know, which includes 343 firefighters and paramedics, 60 New York and Port Authority police officers, and 658 employees of Cantor Fitzgerald.
It’s not so easy to forget for the 1,717 families who never received remains over which to mourn.
20% of Americans knew someone hurt or killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center towers.
I’m not one of them.
So for many Americans, I might not have any right to speak today, especially when God’s providence offers us readings that do not sit well with us in our remembrance of 9/11.
“Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.”
Yet it is so easy to remember with justified anger what happened that awful morning.
“Forgive 77 times?”
How can we, when the perpetrators - and most of the master-minds - are dead?
Why does God ask something of us that is so hard, so contrary to nature?
Why should we do something that many in our country, Catholics included, interpret as weakness, or disrespect for the dead?
The answer Jesus gives to Peter’s question about how much forgiveness is enough tells us why we should struggle to forgive.
Peter’s question springs from a particular, narrow, perspective: himself.
How often should he forgive when he’s been wronged?
It’s another way of asking, “how much dignity can I claim for myself?”
Jesus, as he so often does when someone asks him a question, expands Peter’s horizon and transforms his frame of reference.
A remarkable shift happens when we place God at the center of reality, instead of ourselves!
The question of forgiving another human being must be answered in light of how much you and I have been forgiven by God.
“But,” we might say, “we aren’t that bad! We are in no way like Osama bin Laden, or Adolf Hitler.”
Through the parable, Jesus invites Peter to think of himself as a servant who owes God a debt impossible to pay.
The debt is absolute obedience to an infinitely loving God – and we all owe it.
In the parable, the King, in his compassion, forgives the debt.
In reality, Jesus fulfills Peter’s debt of absolute obedience to the Father.
In response, jealous, self-righteous sinners like us crucified him.
St. Thomas says that it is the humanity of Christ which works our forgiveness.
“Christ’s death is the cause of the remission of our sin,” he says.
To claim that we are ‘not as bad as Osama bin Laden’ means that we do not understand the meaning of his death on the cross.
I do not want to claim that forgiveness comes easily, especially for someone whose loved one died in those horrible moments on 9/11.
Nor do I want to suggest that forgiveness means denying the evil done, or a passivity that concedes victory to those who would do more evil.
Forgiveness is not deliberate forgetfulness, but begins in remembering we have been forgiven by God.
Barbara Minervino is a New Jersey wife whose husband, Louis, died in the World Trade Center.
When bin Laden was killed a few months ago, she was interviewed, and the tension she felt between the Gospel and her experience is real, and heartbreaking.
She said, "We as Catholics are brought up to believe that God will forgive everyone if they're sorry. As I lay my head down on the pillow last night, I said, 'Lord, are you really going to forgive him?' I don't want to. I don't know that I can ever forgive him.
She went on to unintentionally reveal another reason God, in Christ, tells us to forgive.
"Every day of my life is 9/11," she said. "I close the door to my house, and my husband is not there. I've gone through many medical problems and I need my mate with me and he's not there. I want to tell him about something that happened during the day, and I can't. And the reason I can't is because of this man.”
The wisdom of Sirach asks, “Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD?”
When we choose not to forgive, we cannot be healed by God.
When we choose not to forgive, we let our offender live in our head “rent free.”
We give them permission to continue to make us miserable.
Perhaps God commands us to forgive so that we can heal, and embrace the present and its gifts, rather than the past.
I’m not suggesting we “forgive and forget.” That command is nowhere in the Bible.
To simply forget would diminish our humanity and trivialize the suffering of those days.
The issue is not forgetting, but rather how we remember.
Forgiveness is often made possible as we struggle to see the wrongdoer from a wider angle: not as a despicable, immoral person, but as a weak, fragile, and sometimes confused human being, as we ourselves often are.
When we forgive, we no longer reduce the wrongdoers to the deed that has been committed.
We see them from another perspective – one closer to the more expansive vision with which God sees them.
This does not condone the deed or dismiss what they did.
But by remembering in a different way, we do not forget what happened, we just do not allow it to poison the present and the future.
All forgiveness has its origin in God.
While the natural response to an offense is to respond in kind, forgiveness is an act of hope – a supernatural breaking of the cycle of offense-retaliation-offense.
Forgiveness means, “I will not be shaped by the evil I’ve experienced. I will not become like my aggressor.”
It is an embrace of the cross on which Jesus broke the cycle of an eye for an eye.
But to achieve that, we will need God’s help.
And again, Mrs. Minervino, in her sorrow, helps us understand how to respond when we can’t forgive.
"I just pray that however I'm supposed to feel, I'll eventually feel. If God wants to forgive bin Laden, that's God. I can't."
It is God who forgives sin.
In the act of forgiving, we participate in God’s larger act of forgiveness.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ first word on the cross is about forgiveness: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
I often interpret this as Jesus forgiving his executioners.
But literally, Jesus is calling on God, his Father, to forgive them.
Jesus is still in the midst of his suffering.
He cannot forgive his executioners for something they have not yet completed.
But he can call on his Father to forgive.
This can be a great source of comfort to us when we struggle to forgive.
We can call upon God, who sees all things, to forgive our offender, and to forgive our lack of forgiveness.
But we must never grow comfortable in that lack of forgiveness, for our own sake.
Throughout the Letter to the Romans Paul emphasizes God’s total claim on the believer.
“Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”
We have been purchased, and at a price – the precious blood of Jesus.
We have no claim to a right to withhold forgiveness.
It is for good reason Jesus ends the parable with the King handing the unforgiving servant over to torturers.
The isolation, suffering and bitterness that the lack of forgiveness breeds in this life is hellish for good reason.
The cancer that is unforgiveness destroys relationships, including, ultimately, my relationship with God, my Creator and Redeemer.
In a few moments we will pray as Jesus taught us – that includes the request that we be forgiven according to the way we forgive others.
Whether we ask at that moment for a blessing or a curse is up to us.