Forgiveness and the Holy Spirit

“I just can’t forgive and forget.” How many times as a priest have I heard that line!

When I respond with “Of course you can’t!” or “You don’t have to!” it’s not uncommon to see a stunned expression of disbelief. Isn’t that what our faith teaches us we have to do?

No, it’s not.  In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches exactly the opposite! Paragraph 2843 tells us that it is not in our power to stop feeling an offense, nor to forget about it.

If we find ourselves battling with unforgiveness, we can be assured that it is not our feeling that is the problem, nor our remembering. They need healing and care, yes, but our emotions and our memory are marvelous, God-created human faculties that are actually standing witness to the reality and the gravity of the harm that happened. I have written before on how feeling anger is actually part of the path of forgiveness.

There is an untying or unbinding that needs to happen if we desire to forgive from the depth of our heart, as Jesus invites us (Matthew 18:35). This unbinding can only happen if we yield and surrender. But it is a divine work, made possible by the victory of Jesus in his dying, rising, and ascending. Slowly but surely – sometimes in cathartic moments, other times in painful and vigilant waiting – his victory becomes our victory. We truly become like Christ – which means we share in the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Remember that “Christ” means “anointed one,” and “Christian” refers to one who shares in that anointing.  It is the Holy Spirit who transforms our hearts as we walk the path of forgiveness.

The Catechism describes it this way:

It is there, in fact, “in the depths of the heart,” that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession (CCC 2843).

Every offense wounds both the perpetrator and the victim. Unhealed wounds fester in both. It is within our wounds that the evil one tends to find his playground. Ignatius of Loyola describes the devil as “the enemy of our human nature.” In his hatred and envy, he is eager to torment us. Human scenes or harm or neglect (whether emotional, physical, sexual, or spiritual) offer the devil fertile soil to sow his lies – lies about who God is and lies about who we are as God’s beloved children.

If and when we find the courage to face our deeper wounds, we can welcome the anointing of the Holy Spirit. He is the Paraclete – the one who comforts, consoles, counsels, encourages, and soothes.

Think of a little girl with a wound. Does she want mom or dad to put ointment on it? Not normally! She probably needs a good deal of reassurance that it’s going to be okay. Is it going to hurt? Actually, yes. But it will also soothe and help it get better. She may need to breathe and calm down first before she is okay with them tending to the wound.

We are invited to approach our heavenly Father as little children, and to welcome the anointing of the Holy Spirit – especially when we find ourselves feeling the wounds of past harm.

When I do this personally, I find it incredibly helpful to have visible reminders of who God is and who he has been for me. I also believe strongly that Jesus, dying on the Cross, was also speaking to me when he said “Behold, your mother!” Mary has very much been a mother to me on my own healing journey, giving me the emotional and spiritual safety to receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit with confidence.

It still hurts – sometimes a lot. There’s a reason why people avoid going to doctors – even really good ones. There’s a reason why people don’t always follow through on healthy rehab. Even when we know there is new and better life on the other side, we are afraid of the suffering and surrender that precede.

But the anointing of the Holy Spirit also comforts and consoles. If we allow him to touch us where we are wounded, healing will always happen – sometimes with a cathartic release or a dramatic unbinding, but more commonly with slow and steady doses of his healing balm. That is why healthy Christian community is so important. We often need others to point out and celebrate the progress we are making. We can count on the devil to discourage whenever he sees an opportunity. The Holy Spirit works through our companions, our mentors, our spiritual guides, and our therapists to spur us on us with encouragement by celebrating every step of progress. Like little children who are learning and growing, we need a cloud of witnesses cheering us on.

Notice in the Catechism quote that healing of past harm is not a matter of erasing, but of transforming. As the Holy Spirit anoints us, we become truly Christ-like. Jesus’ wounds are not erased – he actually shows them to the apostles after his Resurrection. But those wounds are transformed, as is he. He is now seated at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us. The more we receive true healing in the depths of our heart, the more we become like Christ. Injury is changed into empathy and compassion. Our wounds become (like Christ’s) sources of healing and transformation for others. Like him, we become powerful intercessors.

I offer a caution here! With the word “intercession” comes a risk shortcutting the process. Becoming Christ-like means willingly suffering, dying, rising, and ascending with him. We don’t like the whole powerless part, so we have a human tendency to grab onto something that gives us the illusion of control. If I can be an intercessor (praying for those who have hurt me) then I can feel in control – and I can conveniently keep all attention away from my unhealed wounds. And little or no transformation will happen. Only when I willingly and freely walk the path of Jesus, the healing path of the Paschal Mystery, can I truly experience the transformation of forgiveness.

True intercession comes from a place of already-won victory. It is the risen and ascended Jesus who is our intercessor at the right hand of the Father. As we come to share more and more in his victory, our healed wounds become a powerful place of intercession on behalf of those who have harmed us. To the extent that we resist and refuse to go into the depths of our heart – where the wounds are –we will remain bound up in unforgiveness and resentment. We can “intercede” feverishly in that case – and we will only be making an idol out of the one who has harmed us, orienting ourselves around him or her rather than worshiping the living God.

As the Letter to the Hebrews teaches us, Jesus is our great high priest who truly became one flesh and one blood with us and has now brought our human flesh and blood into the heavenly sanctuary, where he reigns victoriously with the Father. Their Holy Spirit allows all that is Christ’s to be ours. That means willingly entering into the depths of suffering and dying with him – knowing that he has gone there first. All the while we will likely find ourselves recoiling with a fear of betrayal, resisting any experience of powerlessness, and both wanting and not wanting such intense love. The Holy Spirit will comfort and encourage us. We will discover the newness of the Resurrection and power of the Ascension, and come to share more and more in the great triumph of his Mercy.

Fatherhood – Concluded

Authentic fatherhood is a sharing in God’s Fatherhood, a manifestation of it in the flesh. Loving fathers don’t seize power for themselves, but exercise their God-given authority for the sake of lifting others up, helping them to be secure and confident in their own identity as beloved children of their heavenly Father.

Whether we speak of dads or or priests or other spiritual fathers, we saw last time how damaging it is when earthly fathers are absent or severe or emotionally enmeshed with their children. All three deviant behaviors cause damage to the children’s identity. Those children become wounded in their capacity to receive and give love.

In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. He leads his sheep into a relationship with the Father. He does not abandon his sheep to the wolves, like a hireling (cf. fathers who are absent or who abdicate their authority). He does not steal like a thief or devour like a wolf (cf. a chummy father who uses the children to meet his own emotional needs). He does not beat or abuse the sheep in severity but – as we read in Luke 15 – tenderly places the lost sheep on his shoulders and brings it with joy into the feasting of the heavenly banquet.

We who are called to be fathers are called to imitate Jesus, to be loving shepherds.  To the extent we have authority, it is only for the good of the sheep, never for ourselves. It is ultimately a celebration of and with God the Father, who invites us all into the heavenly feast.

But how?

I am myself so weak and wounded. I am poor and needy. I am insecure and unconfident in my identity as a beloved child of God. How can I pour into others when I regularly feel like I have nothing to give?

Here is where we must look to Jesus, who he is and what he actually teaches. He is from the Father. His entire identity is in the Father. He is one who receives.

Jesus embraced poverty. He allowed himself to be totally and radically dependent upon his Father. In his human existence, Jesus reflected his eternal identity of being “from the Father.” He then invites us to receive from him, as branches on the vine, just as he himself has received all as gift from the Father.

I love the way Jacques Philippe connects fatherhood with the Beatitudes, especially the first Beatitude of poverty of spirit. The Beatitudes are all promises of Fatherly blessing, through the anointing of the Holy Spirit. If we acknowledge and embrace our poverty, if we open up in humble receptivity, the Father blesses us and confers a Kingdom upon us. If we grieve and mourn, we will be comforted (“paracleted”) by the Holy Spirit.

We men who are wounded in our identity can only be healthy and holy fathers if we are willing to grieve and mourn the ways that we ourselves have been wounded. I can only be a loving father to the extent that I am secure as a beloved son. Many of us were ourselves abandoned or abused or used (or possibly all three!). We spend much of our lives avoiding just how painful that was for us rather than grieving it and seeking healing and restoration. If we are willing to walk that path, we experience a dying and rising with Jesus. We discover his secret of relying totally on the Father. We meet God again for the first time, discovering him to be a Father who never abandons, is never harsh, and only desires to pour blessing into us. We become secure as beloved sons.

This spring, I had the joy of returning to the John Paul II Healing Center in Tallahassee, assisting as chaplain on the “Holy Desires” retreat for priests and seminarians. There Bob Schuchts invited me, three days in a row, to play the part of God the Father in a “human sculpting” exercise. Another played God the Son, another the Holy Spirit, along with several human and angelic (and demonic) characters. We followed our intuitions and interacted with each other in a visual scene. We first depicted the sweet intimacy of the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus abiding in the love of the Father and the Holy Spirit. We then rearranged ourselves to sculpt a contrast: a scene of strained marriage and a wounded child. As God the Father, I felt such an ache for all three humans in the sculpt! The next day we sculpted the baptism of Jesus and the Father’s utter delight in him, followed by the baptism of someone else, who was struggling to be secure in his identity. The third day, there was a character struggling with the same sin over and over. Someone else, representing shame, began covering the person’s eyes so that he could not see my loving gaze as God the Father. Jesus and I were there, deeply desiring to love him, but he knew only shame. In my ache to love this child of God, I whispered into Jesus’ ear and asked if it would be okay for me to take the hands of shame and place them over his eyes. He willingly agreed, even though it would cost him. I moved the hands onto Jesus’ eyes, and immediately I sobbed and wept. I weep again just remembering it.

Something shifted in my heart at that moment. So often I have turned to the Father with my deep and intense longing to see his face and to receive his blessing. This time I experienced his longing for me, for you, and for all his beloved children. I know it was just a glimpse, a taste, a small measure – and my chest felt like it was going to explode. What an intense desire! It brings to mind the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est that God himself has “eros” – a passionate and intense longing as he seeks out his people in love.

When I return to that experience, I find myself having moments in which I can more fully surrender with peace into the Father’s hands. When my own call to fatherhood feels overwhelming or exhausting, when I feel powerless or feel like I am failing, I can enter the Father’s desire that is infinitely bigger than my own. I can be reminded that all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well. God’s fullness will prevail.

The apostle Paul describes this fullness, and our security in the Father’s love, when he names all fatherhood as deriving from God’s Fatherhood. Let us conclude with those beautiful words of Scripture (Ephesians 3:14-21):

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or imagine, according to his power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Fatherhood – Part II

How do we reclaim authentic fatherhood without succumbing to counterfeit versions of it?

The only way we can discover true fatherhood is to go back to its true source: God the Father and the eternal communion of love that is the Trinity. The Father is the source, the eternal font, without being “greater than.” The Son is from the Father, yet they are coequal in dignity and majesty. The Son eternally receives from the Father; he has his very identity from the Father. Yet he is just as fully and perfectly God as the Father is God. All that is the Father’s is his. The loving communion between them, the eternal delight they share IS the Holy Spirit.

I have been relishing Jacques Philippe’s new book entitled Priestly Fatherhood. He rejects all abusive forms of fatherhood while gently but firmly inviting his fellow Catholic priests to be icons of God’s Fatherhood. Icons are not God; rather, they draw us into the divine. Priests are invited to be loving shepherds, loving in a fatherly way as we accompany the flock into the heart of God the Father. How beautiful it is when we Catholic priests embrace our ordained identity as “another Christ” – one who manifests the love of the heart of Jesus so that others can come to see the face of the Father in heaven.

Often, we falsely exalt priestly fatherhood – putting priests up on a pedestal, pretending like we are not truly human. Our fatherhood is genuine, but it is only a sharing or a participation in God’s Fatherhood. It remains a heavenly treasure held in vessels of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7-11). When we priests forget our humanity, we begin abusing power and harming people. When people expect us priests to be superhuman, they will wear us out. Both happen far too often! God is the true Father people seek, and that means renouncing any idolatrous versions of priestly fatherhood.

Jacques Philippe names well some of the distortions of fatherhood. I would like to consider three of them: severity, absence, and chumminess. I think they are the most common abuses – not only for shepherds and spiritual fathers, but also for dads in family life!

Severe fathers harm their children, who live in fear of missteps or mistakes. The children feel like their efforts will never be good enough; they will never measure up. Sometimes the abuse is blatant: name calling, belittling, yelling, screaming, interrupting, or assaulting through physical violence. Other times, the abuse is subtler – not loving the children for who they are, expecting them to fit a certain image or mold, only showing them love or affection when they behave a certain way or play their proper role, reacting with anger or fear if they somehow bring shame on the family or expose the family’s problems to others.

Absent fatherhood is every bit as damaging, perhaps even more so. Fathers who abdicate their authority leave their children alone to face the harshness of a fallen world, to figure things out for themselves. When children feel alone, unseen, unheard, and uncared for, it doesn’t take much for them to internalize a lie of worthlessness. Something must be wrong with me.

What Jacques Philippe describes as “chumminess” is a third failure of fatherhood. Yes, it gives lots of attention to the children. Perhaps they even like it – much of the time. But it becomes a using and an exploitation – meeting the emotional needs of the father in a way that ultimately sucks the life out of the children rather than strengthening them, holding them accountable, and helping them discover their true identity.

As I read Jacques Philippe, I found myself immediately thinking of another favorite book of mine, Unwanted by Jay Stringer. It is, to date, the single best book on unwanted sexual behaviors, why they happen, where they come from, and how real transformation happens. Jay conducted research with 3,800 individuals and found some common denominators in their family of origin: rigidity, disengagement, and triangulation.

“Rigidity” is another way of describing severe parenting, just as “disengagement” is another way of describing emotional absence or lack of connection. The term “triangulation” is unfamiliar to most, but we need only turn to Genesis to find examples. Isaac and Rebekah are in a marriage covenant, but Rebekah prefers emotional intimacy with her son Jacob, while Isaac prefers their twin son Esau. Jacob continues the pattern into the next generation, choosing his own favorite son Joseph.  Joseph, at first, rather enjoys the power and privilege of this special relationship with daddy – which incites much envy and violence from his brothers. They make him pay by selling him into slavery.

Fatherhood, in its authenticity, is a humble exercise of authority that helps children to know who they are. Consistent and loving fatherhood allows children to be secure in their identity. If you read the writings of John Paul II on Theology of the Body (please do!), you will discover that our identity and our sexuality cannot be separated from one another. God created us male and female in his own image. The devil immediately and furiously assaulted that identity, seducing us into a ruptured relationship with God, others, and ourselves. We have been wounded ever since, both in our sense of identity as children of God and in our sexuality – which, more broadly speaking, includes how we relate to anyone and everyone. Most of us struggle to some degree in having healthy and holy relationships. We wear masks and hide parts of ourselves; we resist vulnerability and true intimacy – because we are wounded.

Only God the Father can restore us in our true identity, through Jesus his Son, in the Holy Spirit. Earthly fathers (both dads and priests) are given authority for the purpose of helping the children to experience God’s Fatherhood. Earthly fathers harm, but we can repair the harm. We can recognize and confess that we have been severe or rigid, that we have abdicated or abandoned, or that we have used others to meet our own needs. We can become authentic fathers who are truly icons of God the Father. We can shine the love of the Father in a world that needs it.

But how?

To be concluded…


Fatherhood is under fire today. Even to talk about it can be taboo. I will take that risk. Authentic fatherhood cuts into the core of Christian faith, because Jesus reveals God as his Father. Read John’s Gospel. Read his three letters. You will hear again and again that Jesus is from the Father. He is in communion with his Father – not just as a human being now in time – but in an eternal communion of intimate love. The bond of love between them is so perfect that it IS a third person, the Holy Spirit. Jesus repeatedly expresses his desire that we come to share in this communion; he invites us to experience God as “Our Father,” to pray and relate to him in that way, both individually and communally.

This poses a problem in a world (and a Church) in which fatherhood has so often failed or harmed. Almost all of us have a distorted view of God the Father, because we are looking at him through the lens of our earthly experiences of fatherhood.

We tend to take the analogy backwards. We are thinking, “God is a Father sort of like these earthly fathers.” It is the other way around! Any authentic earthly fatherhood is rightly called fatherhood only to the extent that it is a sharing in and revelation of God’s Fatherhood.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church warns us against projecting our earthly views of fatherhood onto God:

…we must humbly cleanse our hearts of certain false images drawn “from this world.” Humility makes us recognize that “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son” … The purification of our hearts has to do with paternal or maternal images, stemming from our personal and cultural history, and influencing our relationship with God. God our Father transcends the categories of the created world. To impose our own ideas in this area “upon him” would be to fabricate idols to adore or pull down. To pray to the Father is to enter into his mystery as he is and as the Son has revealed him to us (n. 2779).

These days you will find anti-patriarchy and pro-patriarchy camps in Christianity. The Catechism here offers sympathy and caution to both sides! Both are speaking certain truths that need to be heard. Both sides also have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. On the pro-patriarchy side, you will often find culture warriors who are defending, not God, but worldly structures. Those structures are much more about privilege and power than they are about a true sharing in God’s Fatherhood! God is always on the side of the poor and the oppressed, and if we find ourselves blindly defending oppressive fathers (whether dads or spiritual leaders), we may find ourselves far from God! But on the anti-patriarchy side, there is an over-reaction against these abuses. They are right to acknowledge that many men have victimized, dominated, intimidated, used, exploited, excluded, and silenced. Such acts belong not only to isolated individual men, but have often been embedded within structures that silence opposing voices and blame the victim: including governments, businesses, schools, families, and our own churches. But throwing out fatherhood altogether means cutting off our access to the true Fatherhood of God. We are created to receive his blessing, and will remain miserable without it.

Without God as a Father, Jesus himself would have no identity! He simply IS the Son – eternally begotten of the Father. He invites us to discover our own true identity by receiving fatherly blessing. We need fatherhood to remember our story and to know who we really are.

Any authentic expression of fatherhood is a true sharing in God’s Fatherhood. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “For this reason, I kneel before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named…” (Ephesians 3:14-15). More commonly, it is translated “every family,” but in Greek the wordplay is obvious: God is Father (pater) and all patria is from him. Without God’s Fatherhood, there is neither fatherhood nor any other sense of family belonging.

We begin our understanding of Fatherhood by connecting with and meditating on the Trinity. This weekend (eight weeks after Resurrection Sunday), many of our Christian liturgical traditions celebrate “Trinity Sunday.” Jesus is the Son. He is from the Father. He depends upon the Father, and draws his true identity from the Father. When Jesus is baptized, the Father claims him as his beloved Son, in whom he delights.

There are layers of truth here. The Father anoints the humanity of Jesus with the Holy Spirit and declares this human being to be truly his Son. But he is also speaking of their eternal relationship. He is eternally God’s Son – even had he never become one of us, even if he had never created human beings or a universe at all!

The Son is eternally from the Father, yet they are co-equal in dignity and majesty. There is no “greater than” or “less than” in the Trinity. If there were, then Jesus and the Holy Spirit would not truly be God! They would be somehow less than fully God.

Can you see the relevance for human versions of fatherhood or patriarchy? If our fatherhood truly reflects and draws its substance from God’s Fatherhood, then there will be no opposition between equality (on the one hand) and being a source of identity and blessing on the other. That means that we must renounce any counterfeit versions of fatherhood that want to exalt someone on a pedestal. Fatherhood is never about power or privilege. Properly understood, there is an authority there – but it is an authority that lifts others up. True fatherhood pours identity into others, helping them to discover in God the Father who they truly are.

This is true of husbands and dads, but it is also true (in a parallel way) of spiritual fathers: priests or bishops. Each in different ways are a sharing or participation in the Fatherhood of God; each causes grave harm when the God-breathed authority is usurped for the sake of power or privilege.

Perhaps that is why Jesus gave such a stern caution, “Call no man on earth your father – you have only one Father, and he is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). In point of fact, we do call men our “fathers” – both biologically and spiritually. Paul referred to himself as a spiritual father (1 Corinthians 4:15; 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12); the Letter to the Hebrews exalts Abraham as our patriarch. Jesus is not condemning earthly fatherhood, but reminding us of its true source.

Dads are fathers. Priests are fathers. Others are father figures as well. Like it or not, we who are fatherly have a massive impact on how others form their view of God the Father. We can heal or harm their relationship with God, depending on how we embrace our calling.

To be continued…

Fixing vs. Facing

What is your reaction when confronted with human heartache?

Do you feel the urge to fix it? To prescribe the right book, the right prayers, the right slogan, or the right regimen? Or maybe you crack a joke to lighten the mood; maybe you put things in perspective with a comparison: “Well, at least you’re not like ____________________.”

Fixing feels good at the time. We tell ourselves that we are “helping” the other person – but we are probably helping ourselves. We don’t like that feeling of heartache, and we definitely don’t like feeling powerless – so we back away from the abyss by trying to fix it.

When Job’s friends arrived, they found him sitting on a pile of dung, scraping at his scabs with a shard of pottery. They sat with him for a time, but couldn’t abide his heartache for very long. They shifted to analyzing and fixing, and thereby abandoned him in his pain. Indeed, they blamed him for it!

Giving advice is easy – and not nearly so helpful as we like to think. In some cases, it is our way of backing away from solidarity with the suffering person. In others, it is an arrogant way of saying, “If only you were more like me, your problems would go away.”

I have noticed that subtle message in myself and others – both at the individual and the collective level. I think of Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II – an orphanage in Peru founded by Fr. Joe Walijewski, a saintly priest from our diocese. I have been there five times, usually with a group of young people. The thought process at home is almost always the same – Isn’t it great that we are sending down some of our youth to go and help those poor people? We assume that our affluent (and white) American ways are so much better than theirs. We assume that we have the power, wisdom, and resources to solve their problems. If only they were more like us…

Fr. Walijewski actually saw it the other way around, dreaming of a “mission in reverse.” The mission is not our people going down to Peru. Rather, we go to Peru so that the children there can teach us what it means to be human!

And they have taught us – every time. Amidst material poverty, amidst government corruption, amidst heart-wrenching stories of loss or betrayal, we have encountered stunning beauty and joy. It exposes our own deeper poverty – what Mother Teresa called “the poverty of affluence.” Every single trip I have witnessed the shocked realization in our youths’ faces and tears: How can children possessing so little, children who have suffered so much, be so joyful? How can they love so tenderly and so vulnerably? How can we who possess so much be so joyless?

Jesus invites us to be with each other in communion – both in the agonizing sorrows of life and in the intense joys. As Paul puts it, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). That means that the human heart of a saint is never far from tears and never far from laughter. Those who are the most open to tears are also the most capable of joy. That is because, in the Paschal Mystery, Jesus has redeemed human heartache by investing meaning into it. He invites us, not to bypass suffering and the Cross, but to follow him through it to new and abundant life – to follow where the brave shepherd has gone before.

It is only when we face the fuller depths of our humanity – in all its beauty and brokenness – that we can die with Christ and rise with him.  It is in such human encounters that the newness of the Resurrection breaks in. Those who learn to abide in the midst of heartache, staying vulnerable and receptive to God and others, will experience the surprise of the Resurrection and the joy of the Gospel. Jesus assures us that his Father blesses those who are poor, those who grieve and mourn, those who are willing to be vulnerable, those who hunger and thirst. Facing heartache allows us to receive the Father’s blessing. “Fixing” it closes us off and diminishes our receptivity.

Let’s face it – facing heartache is hard! As the great poet T.S. Eliot put it, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

I think that is why, when Jesus died on Good Friday, he said “Behold – your mother!” – not just to John, but to every beloved disciple. Mary was often in situations in which she intuitively understood that God was doing amazing things. She did not at all know how it was going to be okay. I am thinking of the Annunciation, Jesus’ birth in a stable, the flight into Egypt, the cryptic words of Simeon in the Temple, the losing and finding of 12-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem, his torture and execution, and the awful watching and waiting on Holy Saturday. Again and again, mother Mary faced heartache. Again and again she waited with expectant hope and was surprised by the marvels of the Kingdom of God.

The last time the Bible tells us about Mary is in Acts 1. Following Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, yet again she abides in uncertainty and messiness. She prays with the apostles every day in the cenacle – nine days in all. It took those apostles many years and many failed attempts, but they learned to abide and receive. The Jewish feast of Pentecost arrives – the day to bring first fruits of the harvest to God. In a stunning and joy-filled reversal, God gives the first fruits to his Church in the person of the Holy Spirit. Mary recedes, and the early Church comes to birth, set on fire with the Holy Spirit.

The Church is intended by God to be a community that faces heartache vulnerably, open to the Father in holy receptivity and open to each other in true communal fellowship. Rather than trying to fix or advise others so that their story can fit into the preconceived mold of our own story, we expect the Holy Spirit to show up. We expect the Father’s blessing. We expect that the new life of Resurrection will surprise us. Fixing is too constrictive to allow space for God to do his work.

Do we have the courage to face our humanity together, and to abide together in Hope?

Jesus and Restorative Justice

What is justice?

The greatest minds in human history have often pondered this challenging question: Plato in his Republic, Aristotle in his Ethics, Thomas Aquinas in his Summa.  Wise women and men do not pretend to have all the answers, but they stir up our curiosity by inviting us to ask the right questions.

Justice is a theme that runs throughout the Scriptures. In God’s plan, justice is wedded to mercy (Psalm 85:10). He does not desire the sinner to die but to turn back and live (Ezekiel 18:23). He sends his own beloved Son Jesus to seek out and save that which has been lost (Luke 19:10). He does not desire to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17). When he acts justly, it is always ultimately with a view to heal and restore the creatures he has made – if we desire it. When he acts mercifully, it is never without an invitation to tell the full truth about the harm.

Think of Adam and Eve in the garden in Genesis 3. In their shame, they hide themselves – as though from an angry tyrant who is going to make them pay. He does bring Fatherly justice – holding them accountable and explaining to them the consequences. But he also promises eventual healing and restoration through “the woman” and her offspring. Adam and Eve are unable, at first, to tell the truth about what they have done. They try to shift the blame – anything to get the attention off the shame they are experiencing. God’s questions are for their good: Where are you? Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree? God exhibits both justice and mercy because he is a loving Father who ultimately desires our wholeness and our sharing in his glory. He never lies or ignores the truth, but he also does not desire our loss. Rather than make us pay in strict retributive justice, he sends his own beloved Son so that we can receive his mercy.

But there is so much more than a “not guilty” verdict! The Father and Jesus desire our healing, our restoration, and our wholeness! That is the primary motive for the Father asking his Son to die and rise. Jesus proclaims to his disciples that he came so that we might have abundant life (John 10:10). When he starts appearing to people after the resurrection, he brings life, joy, peace, healing, restoration, wholeness, and holiness – so much more than what they had hoped or dreamed!

How damaging it has been for some Christians to think of the death of Jesus only in the sense of paying the price for our sins. Yes, there is justice – God is a loving and truth-telling Father who does not pretend as though our sins never happened. We can only be healed and restored if we take seriously the harm that our sins have caused – the way in which we have ruptured relationships with him, with others, and with ourselves. AND the Father desires restoration, wholeness, and holiness.

Consider Jesus and Zacchaeus, the tax collector who has exploited many vulnerable people (Luke 10). Jesus eagerly seeks out Zacchaeus, who is stunned at being desired and delighted in. But Jesus also allows Zacchaeus to name the harm he has caused and work to repair it. Mercy and justice go together.

Consider Jesus and Peter in John 21. Jesus stokes a charcoal fire there on the seashore – fully knowing what he is going to do. Following the miraculous catch of 153 fish, he then invites Peter into a conversation that is simultaneously remembering, truth-telling, and healing. Peter stands once again by a charcoal fire, just like the night before Jesus died – only now Peter is allowed the opportunity to say three times that he loves Jesus. Peter experiences much distress in this experience – as Jesus knows he will. It is not a shaming of Peter, but rather helping Peter journey through and out of the labyrinth of shame as he begins experiencing healing and restoration.

Peter is much humbler in this encounter than at the Last Supper, when he boldly declared he would lay down his life for Jesus. In the Greek text, Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” – using the verb agapein to denote a self-sacrificing love. Peter responds (truthfully this time) that he loves him with philein – a brotherly love. Jesus foretells the eventual day when Peter will indeed love him so greatly as to lay down his life. For now, he simply invites Peter, “Follow me.” When we read the Acts of the Apostles, we see the restoration and transformation of Peter taking ever fuller effect. The risen glory of Jesus begins shining in and through him.

Repair and restoration take time. But they include a safe space in which both the one who has harmed and the one who was harmed can be heard, can tell the truth about what has happened, and can seek so much more than simply making someone pay.

I have friends who desire this kind of reform in our criminal justice system – which we all know to be broken and badly in need of repair! I am not an expert in those areas, but I hope we begin asking more of the right questions! Both Scripture and our Catholic Tradition have so much more to offer than a justice that only thinks about retribution.

As a priest, I am especially interested in how restorative justice can take root in our marriages, our families, and our church institutions. Too often, when serious harm has happened, we do not use our God-given creativity to open up a safe and healing forum in which all sides can tell the truth about the harm and seek full restoration for all who have been impacted.

Our families of origin and our church families have often failed in this area – especially when there has been sexual harm. Most people I know feel even more shame and awkwardness talking about sexuality – even though it is one of God’s most glorious gifts to us. Consequently, those who have been harmed sexually – whether by someone working for the church or by someone else – often find that neither their family of origin nor their church family is a safe haven to bring their story. I can think of more than a dozen individuals I know personally who suffered even greater betrayal because their story was not received with care.  Simultaneously, our society currently offers no path of redemption or restoration for those who have perpetrated sexual harm – they are branded as permanent outcasts beyond the reach of mercy.

Our just and merciful Father says otherwise – he desires healing and restoration for all who will receive it. As with Adam, Eve, Zaccheaus, the Samaritan woman at the well, or Peter, such restoration is only possible if we are willing to be truth-tellers – both about the harm done to us and about the harm we have done to self and others. Jesus will invite us to follow him on a healing path that includes (sometimes awkward or messy) repair. We will die and rise with him as we come to full maturity in him. In the end, if we welcome this full encounter with his love and truth, his righteousness will shine in us.