Jesus said to Peter, ‘I do not say to you that you should forgive seven times, but rather seventy-seven times.’
At some time in life, practically everyone must have been wounded by a fellow human being; some hurts can be brushed aside because they are not deliberate slights on ones vanity; they are unintentional, but never-the-less can be gentle reminders on our thoughtless behaviour to friends or acquaintances. Purely by accident our flaws are made known to us without our unsuspecting critic even knowing the effect his or her words may have inflicted on our pride. I can cope with that! But a deliberate attack on my person or family or friends with the intention to humiliate, or do some other harm is a different matter.
When I have been on the receiving end of such an attack I react in different ways. Sometimes I thank people for the insult, [I’m not a cynic for nothing] because arguing the toss is too complicated, and in those situations there is often a ‘hint’ of justification in a reprimand: sometimes I reply or parry with a coarse phrase which is equally insulting – a sort of verbal raspberry! My parents would call such words the ‘language of the gutter!’ I find such language rolls easily off the tongue! However there have been a few occasions during my adult life which have made me very angry.
On one occasion I was restrained from harming someone who withheld money due to me, and at the time I had a young family, so you will appreciate my anxiety on not receiving the financial commission I had earned which was necessary to feed my family. Eventually I did receive my commission, but my anger stayed in my heart for many years, and my intentions towards that man were never Christian! Mentally I chopped him into very small pieces. I considered my anger ‘just’, but on reflection my prolonged animosity towards that man only fed the inner conflict in my soul, and the only one who suffered was me. The thought of forgiving that man at the time, didn’t even cross my mind.
Such incidents were extremely rare, but they demonstrate the susceptibility of humanity to engage in personal conflict, and the ease with which it gathers momentum.
I have been re-reading Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation (encouragement to his people) Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel, which came to print in November 2013, eight months into his pontificate. It has been called Francis’ manifesto on his approach to his papacy, and I came across a couple of paragraphs which mentioned conflict. There is a subheading which proclaims ‘Unity prevails over conflict’ [para 226] and this is what Pope Francis writes.
226. Conflict cannot be ignored or concealed. It has to be faced. But if we remain trapped in conflict, we lose our perspective, our horizons shrink and reality itself begins to fall apart. In the midst of conflict, we lose our sense of the profound unity of reality.
Then Francis spells out the differing reactions people take towards conflict. He says:
227. When conflict arises, some people simply look at it and go their way as if nothing happened; they wash their hands of it and get on with their lives. Others embrace it in such a way that they become its prisoners; they lose their bearings, project onto institutions their own confusion and dissatisfaction and thus make unity impossible. But there is also a third way, and it is the best way to deal with conflict. It is the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it to make it a link in the chain of a new process. “Blessed are the peacemakers!” (Mt 5:9).
What does Francis know about conflict, what experience does he have? Read his life story, as that will flesh out the conflicts that have riddled his life; and what is more, such conflict intensified from the very moment of his election as Pontiff.
Here is a chronology of the first two days of his pontificate.
March 13, 2013: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio elected 266th. successor of St Peter. He chooses the name Francis, after St Francis of Assisi, the saint of poverty and peace.
Within hours of the election, the widely read U.S.-based traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli writes “Horror!” adding that of “all the unthinkable candidates, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is perhaps the worst.”
March 13-15, 2013: Articles are published accusing the new pope of being linked to Argentina’s 1966-73 military dictatorship, with documentary maker Michael Moore tweeting a photo that he says shows Francis giving communion to former dictator JorgeVidela. Argentine newspaper Pagina ½ publishes the same picture on its front page along with an article written by Horacio Verbitsky, a long time critic of Cardinal Bergoglio. Moore withdraws the tweet after it turns out [that] the priest in the photo is not Bergoglio. [The newspaper] Pagina ½ later removes articles written by Verbitsky. [The Outsider. Christopher Lamb. Chapter : ‘A Timeline of Opposition’]
Throughout his Pontificate Pope Francis has continued to be vilified, and rarely has he taken the bait! But regardless of continuous attacks, he has sought to build communion with his detractors. Francis leaves his defence to those who also seek unity and eradication of conflict. Blessed are the peacemakers. The proverb ‘To err is human, to forgive divine’ seems an appropriate reflection on today’s gospel and on Francis’ pontificate so far.