Francis of Assisi was known for constantly exhorting all people to forgiveness and reconciliation – with God, with each other, with themselves. The 13th-century sources are filled with such stories. In one event, three murderous thieves showed up at the friars’ hermitage of Montecasale – midway between Assisi and Laverna. They asked for some food to eat but the guardian refused and instead reproved them harshly them for their crimes and depraved way of life: “Cruel robbers and murderers, you are not ashamed to deprive others of the fruits of their labors, and you have the audacity to come here and devour that which is given in charity to the servants of God - you who are not worthy of the earth which bears you, for you neither respect man nor the Lord who made you. Go about your business, and do not appear here again.” Then he sent the sinners away.
Francis returned to the hermitage a short time later with a sack of bread and a jug of wine that he had just begged for. Upon discovering what the guardian had done, he was very much upset. “Sinners are led back to God by holy meekness rather than by cruel scolding,” Francis reprimanded the guardian. “For this reason Jesus Christ whose Gospel we have promised to observe, says that a doctor is not needed by those who are well but by the sick and that he did not come to convert the just but the wicked.” He ordered the guardian to go out in search of the thieves with the bread and wine he had just procured. The guardian was to kneel at the sinners’ feet and ask their pardon for his cruelty. Then he was to implore them to fear God and to do no more evil for Francis’s sake. If they would promise these things, Francis would provide for all their needs.
When the guardian caught up to the thieves, he did as Francis instructed. They were taken aback as they took the food from him and ate. They listened to his humble words and started to feel sorrow for the dissolute lives they had led. Their hearts began to be converted. They decided to go back to Francis and ask if their crimes were too much for God’s mercy. Francis assured them that the mercy and goodness of God are infinite. They changed their ways and became friars minor. (cf. Fioretti -- the Little Flowers of St. Francis -- 26) The desire that Francis had for these three thieves to experience God’s mercy was the same desire he had for all people to know God’s forgiveness. This desire led to the establishment of the Perdono (the Pardon) of Assisi at St. Mary of the Angels.
One night during the month of July, 1216 while Francis was praying in the church of the Portiuncula, Mary appeared with a host of angels. She told Francis to ask for whatever he wanted for the salvation of souls and to help poor sinners. Francis replied, “That the Lord grant a full pardon to all who come to visit the church of the Portiuncula and make a good confession.” Mary nodded to St. Francis indicating that his request was pleasing to her son. However, he would have to go to the pope, the Vicar of Christ, to confirm the indulgence.
Pope Innocent III had just died on July 16 in Perugia while he was en route to northern Italy to negotiate peace between Pisa and Genoa. Pope Honorius III had just been elected, and he was still in the papal court in Perugia – about ten miles away from Assisi. Francis went to Perugia with Masseo. After receiving an audience, he said: “Holy Father, some years ago I rebuilt a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary near Assisi. I ask that you grant an indulgence to it and announce it on the day of its dedication. I ask that all those who, repentant and absolved, visit this church, shall obtain remission of their sins in heaven and on earth. I do not ask for years, but for souls: a plenary indulgence.”
Honorius was dumbfounded at the request to permit such a generous indulgence. At that time, a plenary indulgence was only granted to those who made a pilgrimage to the tombs of the apostles in Rome, the tomb of St. James in Compostela, the basilicas in the Holy Land, or to the crusaders fighting to liberate Jerusalem. It was unheard of to attach a plenary indulgence to a tiny insignificant chapel in the fields near a small city. Yet, Pope Honorius was of a gentle nature and he allowed Francis’s request. Yet, he left it to the cardinals to establish the application of the new indulgence. The cardinals, however, felt that if a plenary indulgence were allowed freely on any day of the year, it would take away from the other pilgrimage sites. Therefore, they decided to limit the plenary indulgence to just one day. The date set was from vespers of August 1 until sundown on the following day, as August 2 was the anniversary of the consecration of the Portiuncula chapel.
Francis and Masseo left the papal audience in Perugia overjoyed and headed back to Assisi. After crossing the Tiber River, they were tired and they stopped to rest. They were welcomed by the custodian of the leper hospital of Collestrada near the castle and he gave them a room to rest. Ironically, this was the same hill overlooking the valley where Francis had been taken prisoner some 14 years earlier while fighting in the battle of Assisi against Perugia. Who knows what thoughts went through Francis’s mind as he now lay there. That place from which he was once led away in chains had once represented his slavery – to war, to self-aggrandizement, to sin. He knew what it was like to be in chains. Now, however, he was free. Free from sin, free from self, free from hell. On that same hill where his hopes for knighthood were quashed, now he desired freedom for all who were still chained – to sin and its consequences. Where his future once looked bleak, now it was as clear as the sun that was setting over Perugia.
Forgiveness is at the root of the Gospel. When we accept the Gospel, the grace of God penetrates our hearts as we receive the forgiveness and mercy of God. Our shame and sins are washed away. We are forgiven by God. And we receive, experience, and accept God’s pardon, mercy, and forgiveness of our own sins, it follows that we forgive those who have sinned against us. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). Scripture states quite clearly that we cannot be forgiven our own sins until we forgive those who have sinned against us. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your father who is in heaven will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive you your trespasses” (Matt 6:14-15; cf. also Mk 11:25-26; Matt 18:34-35). We cannot turn to God seeking his forgiveness for our sins and then turn around and refuse to forgive anyone who has sinned against us. Scripture also says, “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:22-24).
Yet, it can often ties be difficult to forgive – especially if we have been the victim of great evil. Yet, we must find a way to let go of the very natural desire to hate, punish, condemn, and judge. We must leave that to God. (cf. Romans 12:17-21) Once we realize and admit that we are sinners, we can then understand that the person who wronged us is fundamentally no different from us. Aren’t we all sinners, and haven’t we all sinned. After admitting our condition, we can have empathy for others and we can forgive them. We are all sons of the same Father who is the only one who is good. “No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18; cf. also Lk 18:19). When we admit our own sinful condition and truly experience God’s grace and love in our lives, then we become gentler with ourselves. It follows that we will also become gentle with others. When we begin to see others as ourselves, as people who are probably trying to do the best they can, then we begin to view them with empathy. And we can forgive.
If we have a particularly difficult time forgiving someone who has harmed us grievously, we can surrender and seek to offer goodness to the other person. A practical way to begin doing this is to take concrete positive actions for the person who harmed you. If you cannot do that, then pray for that person. Consider every good thing you want for yourself in your life – good health for you and your loved ones, blessings, graces, financial well-being, etc. – and ask it instead for the person who wronged you. Do this every day for a period of time. After several weeks, you will likely find that your anger and resentments have been greatly reduced or outright vanished. You will know that you have truly forgiven the person who harmed you when you are no longer concerned with the hurt that they caused you, but instead are concerned for the danger they did to their own soul and the grievance they caused God because of their sin.
What about ourselves. Have you ever had a difficult time forgiving yourself? For some it is easy to forgive others, but difficult to forgive themselves. Have you ever tried to make yourself “good enough”? Have you ever suffered from a sense of guilt or shame that you never measure up? Do you feel there is something flawed about yourself? Do you believe that God does not love you exactly as you are? Or, instead, can you accept yourself to be the person you were created by God without feeling that you should be something or someone different? It is difficult to have peace when we have not learned to be loving, compassionate, and forgiving towards our own selves? In fact, in the reconciliation process when we accept God’s forgiveness for our own sins and then, in turn, forgive those who have sinned against us, we must also forgive ourselves. We must learn to love ourselves. Not in an egotistical and self-serving manner, but in a way that is gentle, respectful and kind toward ourselves.
Finally, what about God? Have you ever been mad at God? If you have, or are now, it is okay. God is big enough to handle your anger. He created you (along with the heavens and the earth) and is big enough to take it. It is okay to be angry at God – for a time. Eventually, however, when you are ready, you can let go of your anger. The book of Job – one of the most ancient books in the Bible – describes well the problem of suffering and one’s relationship to God. The story is well known. Job, a pious and upright man, is suddenly plagued with total loss of fortune: his property, animals, children, and health. Finally, he succumbs to what is probably a clinical depression, and he curses the day he was born. (Cf. Job 3:1-13). Nevertheless, Job never blasphemes God, which was the temptation of the devil from the beginning of the story. Yet, just the same, Job does not understand why he is being afflicted so harshly. And he defends his innocence against those who accuse him of wrongdoing, which, they believe, is God’s punishment for his sins. Job feels indignant, anguished, and frustrated, and he demands an audience with and an explanation from God himself. Finally, God shows up and challenges Job:
"Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size? Surely you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid its cornerstone, While the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" (Job 38:4-7)
God continues with his pointed questions, which highlight how his ways are so far above our earthly understanding. God never justifies or explains precisely why Job is in his predicament; rather, he affirms his omniscience to Job. Job finally comes to recognize that in the face of God’s almighty power, majesty, knowledge, and goodness, God’s ways are unsearchable. What right did Job have to question God? He realizes that he, the creature, can never know the mind of God, the Creator. Job is finally able to accept his situation, and he reclaims his peace of mind. Then, providentially, the things that Job lost are returned. We, too, may not understand the plans of God, or know the reasons for our misfortunes, trials, tribulations, or losses. Yet, in the mind of God, in a way that may always remain mysterious, they can have their place. In hope and trust, we can surrender our sufferings and frustrations – even our anger toward God – and trust “that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). Perhaps God allows sin and suffering to show us a greater good.
Once I heard someone say that we are all given a pile of bricks. We can use our bricks to build either walls or bridges. Our pains can cause us to protect our sensitive hearts by building walls, or else our hurts can be the catalyst that teach us how to use our bricks to build bridges. The bridges will at first be to others who will nurture and heal us. Then, once we are healed, we use our bridge to become a healer of others. We become – in the words of Henri Nouwen – a wounded healer. In effect, the bridge is to God. Our pain may never totally go away; but we can use it to help others. Then we have peace.
Franciscan Faith challenge:
• Has someone ever harmed you whom you have not forgiven? Do you have a resentment, rancor, anger, or even hatred toward a person, group of people, or institution? If so, practice forgiveness towards that person or persons.
• Or, conversely, have you ever harmed someone whom you have never asked forgiveness? Do you owe an apology to someone? Do you need to take action to make amends to a particular person? Do you need to do something to try to rectify a particular relationship, situation, or circumstance?
• Keep in mind that you do not have the power to reconcile certain relationships. You cannot control how another person will respond to your approach or whether or not that person will offer you forgiveness. You can only control your own attitudes and whether or not you forgive. If the other person offers you forgiveness, a reconciliation can follow; if not, you have done what is right and what is yours to do.