The recent scandal with Cardinal O’Brien at the centre has attracted the interest of the media to the Catholic Church in Scotland for all the wrong reasons. Sadly, this is not for the first time. Newspapers, radio stations and TV channels have been flooded with breaking news, analysis, opinions and discussions. Certainly the scandal affected many ordinary people; some were embarrassed, some were appalled, some just found further evidence that the Catholic Church is broken. Opinions span between total defence of the cardinal to his total condemnation, with all shades between those two extremes. One of the arguments I’ve heard quite often was that surely the cardinal had confessed his sins in the sacrament of reconciliation, and that God had forgiven him. The unspoken assumption is that his victims should have done this too.
When I was a newly ordained priest, I worked with a much older one. Quite often we squared up in hot arguments over different matters. Sometimes he was right, sometimes he wasn’t. But he never ever admitted he’d been wrong, and he never ever offered me any apologies. Once, I asked him why he never had been sorry for hurting me. I was gobsmacked by his answer: he said, ‘In my prayers and my confessions I always ask God to forgive me my faults.’ Lovely! I’ve apologised to God, so I don’t have to give a damn to apologise to anybody else. For me it was an exemplary attitude of any powerful man: voluntary apologies and contrition only go up, never down the ranks. Owning up to mistakes, errors or misbehaviour is still perceived by many as a sign of personal weakness and damage to the reputation. This attitude was one of few reasons for covering up all scandalous events in the past, not only in the Catholic Church. Recent scandals in the Liberal Democrats party prove that denial is still sound and well.
Reluctance to admit to our own failures is understandable. Most of us want to be seen by others as decent, reliable and likeable characters. This can partly explain why we are so inventive about justifying or lying about our mistakes and bad behaviour. Our own perception of ourselves is even more important to us, so we are very good at blaming others rather than ourselves for failure. This attitude is represented by the older son in today’s gospel.
If someone who has hurt you occupies your mind, making you sad or angry, if you repeatedly argue with him or her in your mind – you have to forgive. You must do it for your own benefit, not because that person deserves forgiveness or because that person needs it. It’s important for your own well-being and peace of mind. Forgiveness makes your life better, regardless of the life of the person you forgive. This kind of forgiveness is illustrated by the father in today’s gospel.
It’s substantially different, however, when you want to be forgiven. It might sound controversial, but I think the best confession of sin is made by approaching the person you have hurt, owning up to your misconduct, repairing the damage as much as possible, and asking for forgiveness. The hurt person might reject you, but at least you have done everything you could. This attitude is represented by the prodigal son in the gospel.
Forgiveness seems to be a very difficult act to conduct on both sides: it’s hard to forgive, and it’s hard to ask for forgiveness. But forgiveness is the only way forward from any hurtful situation, as it closes the past and opens us for the future. It’s not optional; forgiveness is essential to live a satisfying life.