Vincentian View: The Final Act of Love

Fr. Patrick J. Griffin, CM, Special to the Torch

The book which was chosen for the 2017 Freshman Read was “Why Forgive?” by Johann Christoph Arnold.

The text offers dozens of true short stories about forgiveness which highlight its many incarnations as forgiveness of others, of self, and of seeking forgiveness.

The book is short, but it cannot be read quickly.  Many of the stories cause one to take a step back and place oneself in the predicament so as to ask “How would I act or feel in this circumstance?” and, “What difference would it make if I were the one asking or the one giving forgiveness?”

The theme of this book found expression at the New Student Convocation, where Patty Ann McDonald spoke.

She is the widow of Steven McDonald, a New York City police officer who was shot in 1986 by a 15-year-old boy in Central Park. Paralyzed from the neck down, Steven and his family were forced to think about the need for forgiveness.

At the time of the shooting, Steven and Patty Ann had been married for only months, and she was pregnant with their first child.

For the next thirty years, they needed to deal with Stephen’s condition and to wrestle with the issue of forgiveness.

Stephen would say that he needed to forgive his assailant every day because otherwise he could not get on with his changed life. He would be trapped in the anger and bitterness of the past.

Patty Ann also spoke of her need to forgive this young person as she faithfully loved and cared for Stephen.

Their story gives flesh and blood to a human need. Reinhold Niebuhr writes that “forgiveness is the final act of love.” I understand how that can be true.

One of the earliest stories told about St. Vincent de Paul deals with the peasant of Gannes. This man sought Vincent for the sacrament of Reconciliation—Confession. He was known to be a good man, but he confessed to Vincent the serious sin which he had been hiding.

This admission and the absolution which followed set the man free from his yoke of guilt. He was healed by the sacrament, and Vincent was changed as well. The saint came to understand the great gift that he could give to people in bringing them God’s forgiveness and inviting them to a change of life.

One of the great blessings of being a Catholic priest is the opportunity to celebrate this sacrament of healing with people. Many people—some of you—carry around burdens which are difficult to bear.

We have hurt people or been hurt by them and we cannot take that first step towards forgiveness.

In the sacrament of reconciliation, a person is invited to admit his or her wrongdoing and to begin the process of change with the help of God’s grace. I love to celebrate this sacrament.

Why forgive? To the extent that we can offer a response to this question we free ourselves and others, and we bring healing into our world. I pray that this year at St. John’s leads each of us along this path to wholeness and holiness.