//STRIVE – Forgiveness Holy Hour

STRIVE – Forgiveness Holy Hour

Believe it or not, this talk was a lot harder for me to prepare than I ever imagined it would be when I agreed to talk a few months ago.  Mainly because I’m so used to homily preparation where the Church has chosen the scriptures, and I have to read, pray, wrestle, and listen to them.  The Holy Spirit guides me in writing and delivering those words.  When we settled on tonight’s topic, forgiveness – sure, that’s something that has come up a few times – there are plenty of scriptures about it.  But I’m not used to the freedom of being able to pick from anywhere in the Old and New Testaments.  I definitely found myself going off in a bunch of different directions.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for a Lenten Holy Hour I was invited to preach at Immaculate Conception Church in Mahwah, NJ .  I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim

But this one scripture from the Gospel of St. Luke (Gospel reading is Luke 13: 22-30) that we just heard kept coming back to me… The Narrow Gate… few will enter… not everyone will be strong enough.  St. Matthew’s recounting of these words of Jesus is a bit more blunt and direct – where Jesus says: Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many.  How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life.  And those who find it are few.

This is not a usual place for me to find myself in prayer.  And I was, honestly, disoriented by it.  I mean, this isn’t one of my go-to scriptures for personal reflection or a favorite encounter that comes to mind.  It’s such a difficult proposition.  In a world where we’ve been led to believe that anything remotely uncomfortable needs to either be fixed or avoided, there’s that human impulse to react “well Jesus, why not get a bigger door?  A wider gate?  A road with more lanes?  Don’t you want all of us to get in?”

His answer is He does.

His answer is the Cross.

The 40 days of Lent we are journeying through are all about focusing us on the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We renew ourselves in these sacred mysteries, recognizing that those events aren’t confined to the historic momenths that happened 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem.  They are made real and present especially as we gather in His Eucharistic Presence here tonight.

On the Cross, He shows us that He’s come to lay down his life to save us from sin and death.  By allowing all of the wickedness, the brokenness, the evil, and the sin of the entire history of History… (including those sins that you and I continue to commit) to do its very worst on Him.   His enduring that, His conquering that is what unleashes God’s final and eternal victory in this ultimate showdown between good and evil.  Jesus’ crucifixion and Resurrection unleashes God’s love, His Peace, His reconciliation for all eternity.  This is why, as many have highlighted, the last words Jesus speaks from the Cross and some of the very first ones He speaks after He rises from the dead are centered on “Forgiveness…” From the Cross: “Father, Forgive Them – for they don’t know what they are doing.” In the Upper Room on Easter Sunday Night, “Peace be with you… whose sins you forgive are forgiven them…whose sins you retain are retained…” in that beautiful moment Jesus equips and enables the apostles to be His missionaries of mercy as His first priests and absolving sins.

At the Cross of Good Friday and the Upper Room of Easter Sunday, we hear and see that Forgiveness is at the center of everything for Jesus.   Opening a way to restore a relationship with God for all humanity for all eternity.  That is at the core of who we are and what we believe as Catholic Christians.

But it’s not this class action lawsuit that everyone gets the benefits of – where we just get a check in the mail to cash in.  Where I can keep this Jesus check on me while I continue to choose to do whatever I want, in whatever way I want.  We have to receive this gift of forgiveness ourselves… and we have to offer forgiveness as lavishly, generously, and selflessly as Jesus does.  His gift is something that has to be actualized now.  His sacrifice is something that has to change us now.

This is why one word from “the narrow gate” scripture keeps coming to mind, and if there’s only one word you remember from this entire talk, I will be happy, and I hope it echoes in the ears of your heart long after this night that we’re together and that word is “strive.”

Strive to enter the narrow gate…

In the Gospel of Luke, to this guy’s question, “Will only a few people be saved?” Notice that Jesus doesn’t exactly, precisely, definitively answer the question.  He talks about the reality that following Him is hard.  Discipleship is difficult.  Many might attempt to or say they’re doing it but don’t really.  That a majority of the world around won’t be.  And for this guy who’s asking Jesus, that’s confusing.  For us who are here tonight, it’s confusing.  We believe Jesus is not A Way, A Truth, A life – but THE WAY, THE TRUTH, THE LIFE – why doesn’t everyone else?  What will happen to those who don’t?  Jesus lovingly takes both His hands, gently grabs our faces looks into our eyes, and tells us not to focus on any of that.  Instead, He’s just honest, truthful, and direct – yes I am the way, the truth, the life…. Yes, it’s a hard journey… It’s a difficult one.  So focus on Following me.  Strive to do it.

And one of the hardest things in this discipleship, in our following, in our looking to Jesus as “the way, the truth, the life” is Forgiveness.  Both in receiving it and offering it.  Two examples came to mind that are both mind boggling and very different that exemplify what this looks like, and more importantly the change it brings about.

The first was from the late Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.

It’s a strange experience for many of us as human beings that our sense of History is often determined by when we were born.  For myself, for example, being born in 1973 – the Assassination of President John F Kennedy seemed like this thing from ancient history when, in fact, it had only been 10 years before.  For me, it hadn’t happened, though, in my frame of reference.  But when my parents and grandparents discussed it, you could hear the immediacy, the recall, the emotions that this was a real event that they experienced.  And it was always such a strange disconnect for my brothers and I.  But now I can understand my parent’s perspective, as 9/11 is something that the students I serve who are 18-22 years old can only understand from hearing or seeing pictures of it.  And no matter how emotional I can get as I share that experience, they don’t quite get the gravity of it, as those of us who lived through it did.

That came to mind as I read a book, a collection of Pope Benedict’s homilies on the Priesthood.  These beautiful texts vary from homilies he was asked to offer at the first Masses of Newly Ordained Priests, ordinations themselves, to celebrations of Priesthood anniversaries.  He wrote them as early as 1954, when he was a young priest aged 27, only ordained 3 years to the final text from his proclamation for the Year of Priests was in 2009.

How much all the events that lead up to the rise of the Nazi Regime, and World War II affected him and his generation never really registered to me.  Having lived in a post-WWII world, it’s easy to compartmentalize things and just think of Germany being an Ally now.  The evils of the Nazi regime to that country and people, particularly the atrocities of the state-sponsored persecution and mass murder of the Jewish people, are these horror stories from the past.  For Pope Benedict, though, this was something very present and real, even decades later.  He shares memories in multiple homilies.  Remembering how, as young men being forced into military service for this evil regime, being mocked when asked what he wanted to be when his service was completed and when he said “to be a Catholic Priest” – and their military commanders barking that he better think of something else, because priests wouldn’t be needed with the regime in power.  Benedict, as he was recounting this experience in a homily he delivered in 1994, said: “Just a few months later, that Reich collapsed into rubble and ashes and left a trail of blood and tears behind that still plagues us today.” So it was 50 years removed, and that trail of blood and tears was very present in his mind and heart.

Because my vantage point of history is so removed, I don’t think it ever dawned on me the collective guilt that the German people were confronted with post-World War II.  Sure, I had heard about the trials, the restrictions, and such that followed – and have had a greater sense of the horrific things done to the victims of the regime.  But all those people in the middle.  Those who could do nothing because they were powerless…. Those who said nothing out of fear…  Those who said and did nothing out of cowardice.  Those who were in the dark living in a world before smart-phones and instant news feeds – who when the depth of the horrors of what their leaders had done, the extent of that was finally revelaed – just shattered them… you could sense with each of these sharings that the Holy Father was offering in these various (and far more celebratory moments) that guilt was a real thing that they struggled with.  It was a guilt that paled in comparison to the trauma that the victims and their families experienced, so its not often even thought of or discussed.  This is why it only dawned on me after reading these 55 homilies totalling over 300 pages.

I share all that to give you the context – How did those people caught in between deal with their guilt?  How did they reconcile with one another, the other nations of the world, and themselves?  And more specifically, for these men who were discerning priesthood – knowing that one of the challenges that a young man has to wrestle with and struggle through is knowing how unworthy they are to be able to do the things that priests are expected to do, now with this cloud hanging over them:  How did even a young man, decades before ever his wildest dreams, think he would become Pope – the young Joseph Ratzinger and his classmates even dare to begin seminary studies and consider priesthood.

He shared a glimpse of that in this homily from the year 2000, which was given at the golden anniversary of several priests.  He noted how that year of 2000 was a Holy Year, a Jubilee Year that the church celebrates every 25 years.  And here’s what he wrote:


It was a Holy Year then, too, and it really was true that the Lord opened the door for us.  Behind us lay the dark years of the war that had devastated Europe and in particular our land.  Germany was excluded from the community of nations; hunger and privation of all sorts kept it down.  During the Holy Year, the doors opened to a pilgrimage to Rome.  We encountered the great family of the Catholic Church, in which there are no boundaries, and the Church welcomed us all with the power of reconciliation that comes from God.  The isolation had burst open, and we could see that ultimately Christ was the one who was leading the nations beyond all those terrible events and thereby was also bringing our people back together again.


Behind us lay the dictatorship of the Third Reich; ahead of us and beside us, on our borders in the middle of Germany, stood the power of the Soviet Union, bristling with weapons and ready to pounce.  We scarcely dared to hope that it would halt at those borders.  But in our midst stood Jesus Christ, and we knew that from him — and only from him — salvation could come for all: the empires of men, which were built contrary to God’s will, proved to be empires of inhumanity.  The true kingdom of men and of humanity could come about only in the kingdom of God, from Christ, who is the kingdom of God in person.

You can hear how collective guilt, the understandable shame, was only overcome by encountering Jesus Christ and experiencing His forgiveness in a way that no treaty, no reparations, could ever negotiate.

You can hear how that forgiveness, that reconciliation forever changed Joseph Ratzinger’s life and was something that he recalled every day of his life including all those days and years he was our Pope.  The experience of receiving forgiveness, the importance of that, the need for Pope Benedict and everyone to strive and confront their guilt, humbly admit their shame, confess their sins knowing that the love of Jesus Christ was waiting to meet them, heal them, transform them.


This other very dramatic example and story of forgiveness comes from a woman named Mary Johnson – a devout Christian from Minnesota.  It was back in 1993, while at work, she received a call that has to be every parent’s worst nightmare come true.  Her son had been at a party, an argument had broken out, and her son had been killed.  When Mary got the news that the person they arrested for this heinous crime was a 16-year-old boy, she said “Hate set in then and there…” She reflects on it, saying, “Here I was a Christian woman, full of hatred.”

Can any of us blame her for feeling like that?   Can any of us be confident we wouldn’t have the same reaction?  Especially as she describes the roller coaster of emotions that the trial was for her.  First, she was glad to learn the 16-year-old would be tried as an adult for first-degree murder, only to become later enraged when the judge changed the charge to second-degree murder for the killer, whose name is Oshea Israel, whom she described as “an animal” whom she wanted “caged up for the rest of his life.”  During the trial, Mary needed to be restrained from going after Oshea’s mother in the courtroom.  After the trial and his being sentenced to 25 years in prison, Mary talks about how the “bitterness ran deep, anger had set in and I hated everyone.  I remained like that for years, driving many people away.”  It seemed like nothing good left within her, not the least of which was that she felt like her faith was gone.

As those years passed, though, at one point, she came upon a poem that changed her life.  It was about an imaginary meeting between two mothers – one whose child had been murdered and one whose child was responsible for the murder.  Mary, the mother of Jesus and the mother of Judas Iscariot.  Twelve years after Mary Johnson first felt that hatred within her, had first called Oshea an animal and wanted him caged up, she knew what Jesus was calling her to do-  something she had not done, something that seemed impossible for the grieving mother to do – she knew she needed to forgive Oshea.

She reached out and asked to meet him, and for 9 months, he turned down the request out of fear – fear of what she would say or do, fear at how he might be vulnerable in a state prison.  But eventually, he agreed.  She describes in vivid detail the day she met him.  She even remembers the hand lotion that was given to her while she waited to see him.  The lotion was called, “Beyond Belief” which seemed incredibly appropriate.  The prisoner and the grieving mother met for over 2 hours.  Mary started by saying that she didn’t know him, and he didn’t know her, and asked to get to know him better.  Mary Johnson spoke about her son, and Oshea spoke about his life.  As the meeting came to a close, Mary Johnson told Oshea Israel, “I forgive you from the bottom of my heart.”  Shocked, Oshea asked, “Ma’am, how can you do that?” And Mary simply broke down and started crying – she even had trouble standing.  To prevent her from falling, Oshea grabbed onto her and ended up hugging her like Mary was his own mother.  After Oshea went back to his cell, Mary Johnson was shocked by the encounter, saying, “I just hugged the man who murdered my son.”

That’s what Jesus Christ did for her.  She talked about how from that day on – the anger, the hatred, the animosity, the pain – it all left her.  She had a new freedom; she had a new vision.  Her faith in Christ had made her recognize that her son was in God’s hands – and even more incredibly, she felt a responsibility for Oshea, who she calls her “spiritual son.”  Upon his release from prison – She helped him to find housing which turned out to be right next door to her.  Oshea describes that while he has humbly accepted Mary’s forgiveness, he’s still trying to forgive himself for what he did.  And he works with Mary, on what they call “The Forgiveness Project” as they go from location to location together sharing their story.

The first time I heard that story, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever have that kind of strength or faith.  Heck, I never want to be in a position to find out.  And I don’t think Jesus set those things in motion so they could find out for themselves, either.   Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel have shared their testimony and witness that, even when they were far from God’s love, He never abandoned or forgot them.  Despite the incredible, crushing grief, rage, anger, and even hatred they felt, Jesus was never far from them or their lives.  When Mary was ready, when Oshea was ready, that whole awful situation – and both of them were transformed by Jesus Christ.  Knowing how through Him, through His forgiveness brought about on the Cross- that they were children of God.  The grieving mother, the prisoner, wasn’t their identity.  God’s beloved daughter and son were their true identity, an identity they eventually recognized in each other.

That came about when Mary recognized the need to strive to enter the narrow gate, strive to get back up and start following Jesus again, strive to even consider forgiveness as a possibility for the one she understandably had labeled an animal who killed her own son.

What is Jesus asking you to strive for tonight?  Is it to ask for forgiveness?  Is it to offer forgiveness?  Is it both?  More than likely we can find ourselves in that last category of needing it ourselves and needing to share it with others.  It’s why Jesus makes such a point that in the pattern for prayer that He gave us, we begin by acknowledging our identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters and call out to Him as Our Father – we recognize that it is only by His loving providence that we even exist as He sustains us with our daily bread… and the thing that He charges us to do as His children, as His collaborators in building up His Kingdom here on earth first and foremost before anything else (before the corporal works of mercy, before all the beautiful devotions meant to draw us closer to Him) is to recognize our brokenness, our sinfulness, not in a defeatist way or to diminish us.  We’re not to allow the devil to mess with our identities as God’s beloved sons and daughters to change our perspectives on ourselves where we identify ourselves with our brokenness, our sinfulness.  No, we acknowledge it as we pray, “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Growing up as the youngest of three boys, I was always troubled by that.  By the seeming conditional aspect of those lines.  I would have preferred it if Jesus had just said, “Forgive us our trespasses,” and left it at that.

But the reason Jesus is so insistent on this is because this is more than about settling accounts and getting on God’s good side.  When Jesus calls us to Strive to enter the narrow gate, He’s calling us higher… He’s calling us past the limitations we have set in our mind and heart as possible… He’s calling us to be Saints – He’s calling us to holiness.

When we start to hear those words and let them penetrate deep within – forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We realize it’s not a tit for tat thing where God will punish us for our lack of charity and forgiveness by withholding it from us.  That would undermine His goodness, His perfection.  He’s calling us to strive to be like Him.

So as we enter into these later days of Lent, this coming Sunday, the 5th Sunday of Lent, we will enter into what’s called “Passiontide” where the Church turns her gaze to Calvary with greater focus.

As we hear those familiar but ever new the stories of betrayal, denial, abandonment – where the deadly sins of Pride, Wrath, Envy, Greed will be easily identifiable, and traditional hymns are sung asking us “were you there?” The answer comes – yes, we were…  Yes we are…

But Jesus never wants us to remain there.  He never wants us wallowing and wailing – whether in the weight of our own sins or because of the sins of others.

The Cross of Jesus Christ, which we’ll be invited to embrace on Good Friday and which we sign ourselves with regularly, constantly calls out to us to strive.  And the beautiful thing about that word “strive” is that it’s highly personalized for each of us.

So whether it’s been years since you went to confession or you receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation regularly, how is Jesus inviting us to let go of the guilt, to humble ourselves, to make a thorough examination of conscience and confront things I’m ashamed of and want to experience His mercy, His healing by going to confession???

Who is it that I’m being asked to forgive?  Maybe it’s someone I’ve written off completely as hopeless – or it’s someone whose hurt is so great because they were so close, so important to me that I still can’t believe they said, they did whatever they said or did.  For some your striving means actively reaching out to whoever the Lord is bringing to mind.  For others, maybe your striving is simply going to be to actively pray for that person, bringing that situation that you’ve tried to ignore to the Cross this Passiontide…

Whatever it is for each of us, may we be inspired by the witnesses of Pope Benedict and Mary Johnson to recognize that Jesus isn’t calling us to get stuck on the difficulty of the task; he doesn’t want us to give in to fears or anxieties or even our failures in the past.  All those things the devil constantly wants to keep reminding us of making us think the path, gate, or door is too narrow.  Jesus’ forgiveness has been been poured out on that Cross for all eternity.  And as we come before Him in this Eucharist tonight, He is as real and present here as He was 2,000 years ago on that Cross at Calvary.  He meets you and me, seeing how we struggle with how hard the task to ask for and offer forgiveness is, we come before Him…  Think about of all the ways that God Himself could make Himself present, and how an all-powerful God, creator of all things could demand – He comes before us under the humble, simple appearance of a host in silence.  He humbles himself hoping we will too and we hear His invitation to we keep striving.