April 29, 2022

Love’s Litmus / Natalie Hoefer

A photo of forgiveness reveals the power of love

Natalie HoeferOn May 13, 1981, the sharp stuccato of four gunshots erupted in St. Peter’s Square. Pope John Paul II dropped as the bullets pierced his body, and the world held its breath wondering if he would survive the close-range assassination attempt.

The pope was shot again on Dec. 27, 1983. Unlike the shots two-and-a-half years prior, this one was as quiet as a camera click.

Yet it made an even greater impact on the world than the assassination attempt as it captured the pope leaning in close toward Mehmet Ali Agca—his would-be killer—in prison, whispering to him a message of pardon and mercy.

The photo is the personification of 1 Cor 13:5—“Love is not resentful.” Or in other words, love forgives.

Even the secular world took note of the message. In a Jan. 19, 1984, Time magazine article, Lance Morrow called the 21-minute meeting in Agca’s cell “an extraordinary moment of grace. … It was a startling drama of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

That “extraordinary moment” began from the first moments of the Polish pope’s physical healing. Just four days after the shooting, he offered his Sunday Regina Coeli address via a recording from his hospital bed.

“I pray for the brother who struck me,” his weak voice declared. “I have sincerely forgiven.”

His words echo those of Christ to the ill-willed crowd on that first Good Friday, even as he hung on the cross by their condemnation: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).

When challenged to forgive likewise, we could wave a dismissive hand and say, “Well, he was the Son of God. I’m not.”

No, but we’re called to imitate him, just as Pope John Paul did.

So wholeheartedly did he embrace Christ’s call to show mercy and forgiveness that he wrote an encyclical on the subject, “Dives in misericordia” (“Rich in Mercy”), six months before he would be challenged to forgive someone who tried to end his life.

“Christ emphasizes so insistently the need to forgive others that when Peter asked him how many times he should forgive his neighbor, he answered with the symbolic number of ‘seventy times seven,’ meaning that he must be able to forgive everyone every time,” the pope wrote in the encyclical.

He reiterated the point later in the document, stating that Christ “teaches us to forgive always. How often we repeat the words of the prayer which he himself taught us, asking ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ ”

I have an embarrassing confession about that line from the Our Father (humiliating, really, but for the sake of making a point, I’ll share): It wasn’t until my early 30s that I understood it’s meaning.

I always thought the words meant, “Father, forgive us just as we saintly people so graciously forgive others.” (I picture God now, eyes closed, shaking his holy head).

Forgiving others took on a grave new meaning when I realized the truth—that with those words, I was asking God to forgive me only to the extent that I forgive others.

That’s sobering.

My natural reaction is to offer a barrage of “buts” when asked to forgive ad infinitum. Yet as I review Christ’s words and consider his actions, it seems pretty clear—there are no “buts.”

Love perpetually pardons. It’s a truth enshrined in the crucifix—and in a modern photo of forgiveness.

(Send your stories of people you know who live out agape as described by St. Paul in 1 Cor 13:4-7 to Natalie Hoefer at nhoefer@archindy.org, or call 317-236-1486 or 800-932-9836, ext. 1486. Include your parish and a daytime phone number where you may be reached.)

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