“Father, Forgive Them”

by Peter Mais

After my wife’s murder near the chapel by the Pastoral Centre in March last year and before her funeral I sought the seclusion of a cottage in the Blue Mountains where I reflected and wept.

I realized that the tragedy was not an event to be considered in a vacuum. I reflected that Jesus was as present with her in that garden near the chapel as he was present during his own agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Once this thought seized upon me I was led to reflect on Jesus’ own passion and death which brought me to meditate on his own words: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

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I was able to place Jesus’ forgiving words in the context of the torment which he was undergoing: He was covered with the spittle of his persecutors, crowned with thorns, stripped of his earthly garments, fed with gall and given vinegar to drink, had been stabbed with a lance and was now nailed to a cross. Yet he pleaded with the Father, seeking forgiveness for his tormentors, among whom we are, since we inflict pain on his mystical body whenever we sin. He sought justification for them and for us even now in these words: “For they know not what they do.”

And so I realized that Christ places a high premium on forgiveness. He taught us to pray to the Father and centered in his prayer we find: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” St. Paul continued the same theme in his letter to the Ephesians: “Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.” (4:32). It then became clear to me that forgiving others is the imperative condition to God forgiving us. If we want God to forgive us completely, we must completely forgive those who cause us harm. “From this day you will be with me in Paradise” he promised the good thief. If we want to enter Paradise immediately at death, we must neither attach a price nor place a qualification on forgiveness.

Armed through the Spirit with these thoughts I found it possible to pray for forgiveness and mercy for Vilma’s murderer and I publicly extended the palm of forgiveness to him in a tribute which was read for me at the funeral. I continue to pray for him and his family daily.

Vilma Mais and her husband were married thirty-seven years and deeply involved in the life and mission of the Jamaican religious community, the Missionaries of the Poor. Vilma started the prison ministry of Stella Maris Church contributing weekly to the spiritual uplifting of inmates at two large penal institutions, and acting as a link with families on many occasions.

After spending an hour in Eucharistic adoration at the Stella Maris chapel one afternoon, Vilma stopped next door at the church office for some business related to the prison ministry. As she walked through the chapel garden, an assailant stabbed her many times, and fled with her Bible and handbag.

A poem she had written as a song a few weeks before her death now graces a stone monument in the chapel garden. “So here I come to you my Lord, Just to see your smiling face, You are all I need to be, So take me now, Oh Lord.”

Many people have disagreed with me on this and on positions which I have since taken, one of which is that I refuse to participate in a crime-stop-program by which I would be required to offer a bounty for the capture of the murderer. One argument advanced is that forgiveness is best offered when you confront the perpetrator. The best example of this, some people said, is Pope John Paul II, who visited in his prison cell the person who stabbed him and there confronted and forgave him.

For starters I am not of the spiritual caliber of Pope John Paul. On the other hand the good Pope never offered a bounty for the capture of his attacker. I believe that Vilma’s murderer suffers not only bitter remorse, but he and his family suffer the consequences of this crime even without his being incarcerated. I do not believe that God intended that I impose the condition that I must first confront the perpetrator in order to forgive him and pray for him and his family. My closure is the certain knowledge that Vilma is in Heaven with the Lord she loved so dearly, praising him and at the same time praying for all of us.

Reversing a desire

It is never easy to forgive. There is a part of us that cries out for satisfaction. Some call it justice, some retribution. It is a human desire, which we inherited from Adam who fell from grace by a tree and with him the whole human race. This is not the way of God. On the contrary, he sent his Son to reverse that unholy human desire by means of the wood of the cross so that, as a great saint once pointed out, “the disobedience caused by one tree can be blotted out by the obedience of the other tree.”

I believe that if we ask for and expect to receive God’s unconditional forgiveness we must offer it in return. God gives it freely through love; we should offer the olive branch freely in joy and in gratitude to God. It is what God wants; it is his way. Let us pray for each other for the grace to constantly sustain this holy attitude towards forgiving each other and forgiving those who have and will harm us. -30-

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