Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I distinctly remember the night, sometime in the fall of my ninth grade year, when I heard the testimony of NYPD Detective Steven McDonald. My parish was hosting him and had asked the Confirmation students to attend his talk. That night, his witness was both visible and verbal. He told us the story of being shot in the line of duty in July of 1986 while he was on patrol, leaving him a quadriplegic. But the sight of his wheelchair and the sound of his ventilator were nothing compared to the words he spoke. He had forgiven the teenager who shot him. And from the time he left the hospital until his death in 2017, Det. McDonald taught forgiveness and nonviolence all while giving direct testimony to the inspiration for his act of mercy – his Catholic faith. That night he encouraged us to both forgive others and seek forgiveness ourselves, especially in the Sacrament of Confession. He ended his talk leading us in a decade of the Rosary. The night is clear in my memory because God was at work in my heart through Det. McDonald’s witness. I began to experience God calling me deeper into a relationship with Him, to understand His mercy, and to be an instrument of that mercy in my own life. In many ways, that night prepared me to receive the vocation to the priesthood. Years later, I met Det. McDonald at another parish event, now as a priest, and was able to share with him how much his talk had impacted me years before and thank him for the way his testimony had impacted my life.
I distinctly remember the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when as a first year college seminarian I heard the news about the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. Standing in a hallway at Sacred Heart University with other students staring at a television screen in disbelief, we shared a collective horror and pain. There was one moment, however brief, that remains a shame in my memory. The news station played a short clip of people in another country celebrating the attack, and in that moment I was filled with hatred and a desire for revenge. I had never experienced a feeling like that, and have never experienced it since. The emotion was the exact opposite of mercy, the exact opposite of forgiveness, the exact opposite of nonviolence. It passed quickly and I never saw the clip again, instead, like so many, seeing only the footage of the planes hitting the towers again and again, and returning emotionally to sadness and fear.
These memories stand out both in light of the 19th anniversary of the attacks which we marked this week, and the powerful command of Jesus in the Gospel today. How often must I forgive? As many as seventy-seven times, or as some translations have it, seventy times seven times (which, if I have done my math correctly, is significantly more than 77). However it is that the symbolic number is translated, it is weighty. St. Augustine writes that the number 77 represents the number of generations from Adam to Christ, that is, from the first sinner to the salvation from sin. Jesus comes to bring mercy to every generation, to forgive the sins of all who have, like Adam, sinned against God and His covenants. Hilary of Poitiers writes that the multiplied number, 70 times 7 times, demonstrates for us the frequency with which forgiveness must be given, how God’s mercy multiplies and is poured out with abundance, and how we are thus called to imitate that abundant mercy. The parable of the servants shows us that showing mercy ourselves is the indispensable aid to receiving mercy, and that having received mercy, we have a responsibility in turn to share that mercy with others.
Detective McDonald did not forgive his shooter only once. Rather, each day as he awoke, he had to forgive again. As a man aware of the mercy God had shown him so many times, he was able to offer that mercy again and again. By that offering of mercy, he let go of his desire for revenge and instead became an advocate for peace and justice. He traveled the world, memorably speaking about forgiveness in Northern Ireland, accompanied by Fr. Mychal Judge, who would later become the first official casualty of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of those attacks, I think that many of us were saved from the desire for vengeance by the clear sense of unity and mercy at work around us. How many stories are there of strangers helping strangers that day and in the weeks that followed? This Gospel and these memories are important, and I think can show us a path forward.
Our world, it may seem, is falling apart. The pandemic, racial tension, police violence, political division, and ongoing wars are only a few of the many divisive and challenging issues the human family faces today. In the pandemic, we have all seen countless acts of selfless mercy. We can see in Detective McDonald, a white police officer who publicly forgave the Black man who shot him, befriended the man’s family, and spent his remaining years advocating reconciliation and peace regardless of race, class, or creed, an outstanding example of how we can, today, respond to the tensions in our society. If we could take Det. McDonald’s witness to heart, we would recognize our own personal need for mercy, and in turn act with mercy toward others. Letting go of desire for revenge, of resentment, of hatred, we can see the wounded hearts of so many in our society and treat them with corresponding mercy. If we call to mind those challenging days after 9/11, we will remember the better angels of our nature, and in turn make the effort to be those better angels. Hearing the Gospel proclaimed this weekend, the truth that forgiveness and mercy are not a one-time task but rather a daily effort that must be infinitely multiplied will take deep root in our hearts. These memories I share loom large in my mind as I reflect on this Gospel. I hope that the fruit of these memories may not remain a past reality or theoretical ideal, but be today and in the future a source of continued forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation and a heroic challenge to live out concretely each day.