The Role of the Laity in Ecclesial Forgiveness

In this theologically rich and thought provoking reflection on forgiveness, Cardinal Stafford explores the modern emphasis on reconciliation, the truly Christian nature of forgiveness revealed by the Father in Christ and the laity’s role in the ecclesial participation in this forgiveness as an authentic means of Church renewal. (listen to his talk)

Cardinal James Francis Stafford, Vatican, Former Major Penitentiary, Apostolic Penitentiary
Cardinal James Stafford, Former Major Penitentiary, Apostolic Penitentiary

There is an intense and broad discussion in the world today about reconciliation. Since the 1960s, truth and reconciliation groups have been setup to help resolve conflicts between warring nations or between ethnic or religious groups. Unfortunately, this emphasis on reconciliation has eclipsed the Church’s contribution of a true understanding of forgiveness. In fact, all too often the understanding of the Sacrament of Reconciliation has been understood as an exchange of promises between the penitent and God rather than a reception in faith of God’s unanticipated and undeserved gift of love and mercy to each individual person.

Cardinal Stafford explains that this was not always the case. In fact, the Medieval Church in its search for a new word to capture Christ’s overabundant or hyperbolic gift created the word, forgive, against the backdrop of the negative emphases found in ancient cultures and languages. To both the Hebrews and the Greeks, the forgiveness of sins by God was viewed as something negative – God’s letting go or forgetting of sins, or literally throwing them back. To the Christian, meditating on the centrality of Christ’s sacrifice and celebrating this mystery in the Eucharist whose central focus is forgiveness, the true meaning of forgiveness is revealed as an unasked for and unanticipated initiative by God directed to us when we did not deserve it. St. John writes, “God loved us, first.” The point here is that God gives before we ask. God’s forgiving grace is not a reaction or response to our asking but one that is an unexpected new act which opened up new possibilities on the horizontal level for our willingness to forgive others.

Therefore, the family and then the parish is to be itself the mediating structure of God’s forgiveness because it has been called to be the sacrament of universal salvation. According to Cardinal Stafford, every church should inscribe the words above its door, “Here, the truth is truly spoken.” Our confidence in God’s forgiving grace should be so deep that we can speak the truth about ourselves to one another and know that, through tough love, we will be accepted and forgiven.

For this to take place, we must be continually confronted with Christ’s words from the Cross, “I thirst.” Drawing upon his own experience both as a young priest and later with an encounter with Mother Theresa, these words, “I thirst” revealed to him that our God is a beggar God who seeks our consolation.

The whole Church, the Totus Christus, must participate in mediating this forgiveness to the world. Drawing upon St. Augustine, Cardinal Stafford outlines four ways that the laity can share in this ecclesial forgiveness:

  1. Fraternal Correction – the baptized in the exercise of their kingly role are called to correct one another; our natural desire for friendship and peace should cede to the Christian duty of fraternal correction;
  2. Forbearance – the baptized are called to a deliberate unwillingness to judge harshly even when provoked to do so;
  3. Tears – the baptized are called to shed tears for their own sins and for the sins of the community; and
  4. Intercessory Prayer – Like St. Monica who interceded for many years for her son, St. Augustine, the baptized are called to constant intercessory prayer.

In this way, the People of God will be renewed as they embrace more deeply God’s forgiving grace and share it with one another and extend it as a sign of hope and salvation to the world.

© 2010 O'Meara Ferguson Reposted with permission from O'Meara, Ferguson, Whelan & Conway, Inc. Originally appeared in their newsletter, Tertium Quid – Vol. 1, Issue 7. 

The article is based on a talk originally presented by Cardinal Stafford on October 21, 2010 during the O’Meara Ferguson annual conference in Chicago. Listen to his talk: The Role of the Laity in Ecclesial Forgiveness [55:28]   Play in Popup | Download (366)

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