Forgiveness, Repentance, & The Pope

Last weekend Pope Francis was in Ireland for the World Meeting Of Families. With such a title, it’s no surprise that the Pope took every opportunity to encourage and emphasise the importance of the family. But if you only saw the news, you’ll wonder what families had to do with it, because the media and internet were only interested in the Pope’s words as far as he addressed the terrible abuses of Catholic power in Ireland.

This, of course, is understandable. Ireland is a nation with strong historic ties to Catholicism, but it is also a nation traumatised by unspeakable abuse at the hands of far too many in positions of Church authority. To make a terrible situation even worse, leaders who held the power to stop the abusers worked instead to protect their own, leaving a trail of suffering and disillusionment behind. So it’s little wonder that the most discussed aspect of the Pope’s visit to Ireland is his response to these open wounds. As Pope Francis himself said,

“I cannot fail to acknowledge the grave scandal caused in Ireland by the abuse of young people by members of the Church charged with responsibility for their protection and education.”

Cannot fail, indeed: The issue is far too large to ignore. He had to say something. In fact, he touched on the subject several times, expressing his sorrow, shame and outrage, and even asking for forgiveness:

“…I wish to implore the Lord’s mercy for these crimes and to ask forgiveness for them. We ask forgiveness for the cases of abuse in Ireland, the abuse of power, the abuse of conscience and sexual abuse on the part of representatives of the Church…”

Forgiveness. If ever there was a thoroughly Christian virtue, this is it. The entire Christian faith is build on the costly forgiveness of our sinful rebellion against God through the blood of Christ. And this vertical forgiveness is supposed to work its way out in our horizontal relationships with each other as well. Jesus himself made it clear that if we cannot forgive each other, we have no business claiming to know his forgiveness.

And yet.


What about justice for those who have been so deeply wronged? Crimes have been committed. Can forgiveness really just brush over them with a bit of white paint and call it a day? What will be done about the rottenness underneath? Thankfully, the Pope recognised that there is more to the story when he ended his prayer for forgiveness this way:

“May the Lord preserve and increase this sense of shame and repentance, and grant us the strength to ensure that it never happens again and that justice is done. Amen.”

Repentance. If ever there was a thoroughly Christian virtue, this is it. It is the unqualified admission of wrong, the recognition of a need to change direction, and the the act of doing so. According to the Bible, no one can receive God’s forgiveness without it. God is certainly willing and able to forgive anyone of any wrong, no matter how horrible, and he does not even require payment. He paid the high price himself on the cross, and it is enough. But there is a requirement that still remains: We must admit our wrong, renounce our rebellion, and turn away from our life lived in selfish independence from God, turning instead to live a God-centered life fuelled by strength that God himself supplies. This is repentance.

There is no doubt that Pope Francis drew on excellent words during his visit to Ireland: repentance, justice, forgiveness. But words are not enough. What the nation needs now is a living example of what true repentance looks like. When the cheating tax collector Zacchaeus met Jesus and repented in the gospels, he did not stop at asking forgiveness from those he had stolen from. He gave the money back, times four! The Catholic Church right now has an opportunity to show Ireland and the world that repentance means more than just saying sorry. But to do this, it will take more than well-chosen words on a weekend visit: We need to see a Church that is so committed to the healing of those she has hurt that she would spare no expense and shy away from no humiliation in her quest to make things right. We need to see people who have done wrong coming forward, willing to take the full legal consequences for their crimes and make what restitution they can. We need to see a hierarchy actively and aggressively bringing dark deeds into the light and dealing with them in justice. In other words, we need to see a Church that takes repentance seriously. Not only with words, but with a true change of direction away from self-protection and towards giving herself for the sake of others.

Jesus preached a message of repentance often during his ministry on earth. The Catholic hierarchy has an opportunity right now to show the world what he meant.

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