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September 15, 2002

Forgive Seventy Seven Times.

After one is in the Jesuits for fifteen years or so, they send you far away for a sabbatical year to a peaceful place to pray. So five years ago, they sent me to Belfast. As you know, Northern Ireland is not a peaceful place at all, after thirty years of civil war between Nationalists and Unionists, Catholics and Protestants, over Great Britain's control of the six counties, and the lack of basic civil rights for Catholics. Both sides have terrible paramilitary armies that have bombed and killed people.

One day, fifteen years ago, the IRA blew up the center of the town of Enniskillen, during their Memorial Day parade. Eleven people were killed and dozens were injured. One of those killed was a twenty year old nursing student named Marie Wilson, who was standing on the street with her father, Gordon, watching as the parade passed by. The bomb blew up the building behind them. It fell on them, killing Marie and injuring Gordon. When that happened, in November 1987, the whole world was shocked and outraged.

Later that day, when Gordon Wilson was released from the hospital, the TV cameras surrounded him and asked him for a statement. "I have no desire for revenge or retaliation," he said. "Killing the people who killed my daughter will not bring her back. So I forgive the bombers and I leave everything to God and I believe someday, I will see my daughter again." The whole country was shocked by Gordon's forgiveness. No one had quite ever forgiven the other side so publicly before. For the first time in a long time, people began to talk about forgiving one another, to forgive the bombers, and to let go of resentment, and this talk of forgiveness and reconciliation helped lead up to the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998. Gordon traveled around the world promoting reconciliation until his death from cancer a few years ago.

So when I was living in Northern Ireland, I went to the town of Enniskillen to meet Gordon Wilson's wife, Joan, who is still alive, and living in their home. She invited me in for a cup of tea that afternoon, and after we were chatting, I asked her, "Joan, how did he do it? How did you and Gordon forgive the people who killed your daughter?" This is what she said to me. "Gordon and I had been married for thirty years, and every night before we went to bed, we knelt down together and prayed the Lord's prayer. Every night for thirty years! When Gordon was in the hospital that afternoon, he said to me, 'We have to forgive. Otherwise, we can never pray the Lord's prayer again.' We wanted to be able to say to God, 'Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.' So we forgave the murderers, and we were able to continue praying the Lord's prayer."

Today, Peter asks Jesus, "Lord, how often do I have to forgive my brother? Seven times? Remember, Peter has a brother who is also one of the disciples-Andrew. Peter was probably annoyed by his brother Andrew. And if you think about it, Peter is really proposing a lot. Imagine forgiving someone seven times a day. That means, you say, "I forgive you" in the morning, late in the morning, at noon, in the middle of the afternoon, at dinner time, in the evening, and just before retiring. That's a lot of forgiving! But Jesus says we are to forgive not seven times, but seventy seven times! In some versions, he says, Seventy times Seven times, which is about 490 times! We are to go around all day long, for the rest of our lives, saying, "I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you." Then Jesus goes on to give this parable, calling us to imitate the mercy and forgiveness of God, with the punch line that we are to forgive one another from our hearts, no matter what.

Forgiveness is at the center of Jesus' teachings. And he practiced it himself, as he was dying on the cross, when he prayed and forgave the people who had just brutally tortured him and were killing him, saying, "Father, forgive them; they know not what they do." Now you may be thinking, "That's just beautiful. How nice. Sure, I believe in forgiveness. Who doesn't?"

But deep, deep down, we all have someone we do not want to forgive. We all have someone we resent, someone who hurt us, someone we're mad at, someone we hate, maybe our brother or sister, or parents, or classmate or neighbor or coworker. Today, Jesus says, "I want you to forgive that person and let go of your resentment, your anger, your pain, your hurt, and grant general absolution and clemency to everyone who ever hurt you." The Gospel invites us to say to Jesus, "Ok, Lord, today I forgive that person. In fact, I forgive everyone. I even forgive the hijackers of September 11th."

As we forgive everyone who ever hurt us and let go of our resentment, we can say the Lord's prayer like Gordon and Joan Wilson, and when we get to the line, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," we know God will forgive us too.

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