God wants to forgive us

September is a month of paradox. For those whose life marches to an academic calendar, September is a time for new beginnings. For those who follow the seasons of the year, September is a time for ending summer and assessing the bounty of a season of planting. For the Diocese of Fall River, September is a month of a new beginning and an assessment of the harvest as we say farewell to Bishop George W. Coleman and welcome Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha.

The Church in which Bishop Coleman served for 50 years has gone through enormous change, sweeping along with a pendulum that has swung through the Second Vatican Council, the 25-year reign of St. Pope John Paul II and into the uncertain times of a papal resignation. Bishop Coleman retires just at the time when the winds of change are blowing through the Church that Pope Francis wishes to shape. This is the Church into which Bishop da Cunha will begin his time at the helm. 

For both men, the challenges facing the Church are not locally grown. Throughout the world, pluralism, secularism, and fragmented values in the culture have twisted the psyche of the Christian faithful. The Church has hammered at the problem with old methods that no longer offer a compelling alternative to the larger culture. Pope Francis acknowledged that the erosion of the Church’s faithful is not going to be stemmed without renewing our approach. Speaking to bishops in Brazil in 2013, Pope Francis compared these dissatisfied defectors to the disciples who fled Jerusalem and encountered Christ on the road to Emmaus. “Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas. We need a Church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a Church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a Church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning.”

The pope wants us to dialogue with her people, and for a conversation starter we need only look to Jesus for a clue. From the moment that Zechariah sang His praises about the coming of the Messiah to the dying Words of Jesus on the cross, the central message was forgiveness. The bishops heard the message loud and clear and have established that the theme for this catechetical year will be “Teaching About God’s Gift of Forgiveness.” While most of the emphasis of the teaching will center on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we all know that forgiveness is not a subject that can be taught intellectually, but must be conveyed through the heart.

The Church fears that this generation has lost its sense of sin. Anyone who has raised children knows that from the time they are very little and through adolescence, they always know when they have broken the relationship with their most beloved. Why else would we receive so many apology notes in our Mother’s Day cards? Forgiveness, like love, may be our most primal need; the two walk hand-in-hand. If we can tap into that feeling of being reconciled with the one we love, then the foundation for teaching about God’s gift of forgiveness has been laid.

 The hardest lesson to teach is that God really does want to forgive us. Many of the most pious Mass-goers have said that even though they go to Confession on a regular basis, they don’t feel worthy of God’s forgiveness. This demonstrates the complexity of forgiveness, for it is a system with many moving parts. To accept God’s offer of Divine mercy, one must experience human forgiveness. To be forgiven, one must feel loved. To be free to accept human and Divine mercy, one must be a forgiver. It is all so complex, yet it is all so necessary. In his book, “The God Who Won’t Let Go,” Peter Van Breeman, S.J. wrote that “in forgiveness something new breaks through in our world. Whoever wants to live creatively, must forgive. Without forgiveness we remain imprisoned — caught — in the demonic circle of endless repetitions, in a sterile and one-dimensional world far from God.”

The world that offers so many challenges to our faith can never destroy the gift of God’s forgiveness. This should be great reassurance to our bishop who is leaving behind a Church that through all of its challenges faithfully preserved this essential teaching from Jesus Christ. The task set before our next leader is simple, for all he has to do is get the conversation started. 

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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