Pope Francis declared this year to be a Jubilee Year of Mercy, a time to extend mercy to others through both acts of forgiveness and care for those who are poor or most in need. We also know ourselves to be in need of mercy as sinners. My favorite definition of mercy is that of my colleague Jim Keenan, SJ, who says that mercy is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another. In this Year of Mercy, we are being asked to work for reconciliation in our families, friendships, and communities.
What, though, can we do when another refuses to reconcile despite our best attempts? While the situation is imperfect, it can still be an opportunity for growth and for love. Here are a few ideas for how to respond.
1. Let go and hand over the situation to God.
We can never control another person’s actions. Part of genuine reconciliation is to recognize the dignity of another person and their freedom to respond or not to respond, as she or he sees fit.
2. Accept God’s forgiveness.
As good as it might be to hear expressions of forgiveness directly from a person whom we have offended, God is always waiting to extend forgiveness and love. Going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation can help to restore peace to our souls. God’s love is unconditional even when human love is conditional.
3. Let the land lie fallow.
Among the practices associated with the jubilee year in the Hebrew Scriptures was allowing fields to lie fallow, i.e., not to plant so that they could have some rest and produce better in another year. Perhaps everyone involved in a damaged relationship needs time to process and to heal. Genuine reconciliation cannot be rushed and may take a very long time. In prayer, God can help us see what we need to see, and to heal where we need to heal.
4. Forgive yourself.
Sometimes seeking forgiveness from another is really about an inability to forgive oneself. I regularly visit a prison, and while I find it relatively easy to believe that God forgives others even for the most serious of crimes, forgiving myself is much harder. Yet it is often only when we can love ourselves with our faults and failings that we love the way that God loves us, as we already are: human. We are broken and sinful, but also beautiful in our brokenness. Sin does not make us unworthy of love.
5. Be the prodigal father.
When we think of mercy, it is easy to want to be the prodigal son or daughter who receives mercy. But Henri Nouwen, in The Return of the Prodigal Son, writes that we are also called to be the prodigal father. Part of Christian maturity is to learn that we are also the merciful parent, and not only the needy child. We are called not only to receive mercy, but also to be its bearers. Who is in need of our forgiveness? Who yet needs our mercy? And we may find in extending mercy to others that we find the very love and mercy for which we were looking.
How else can you work for reconciliation in your family, friendships, and community?
Image: “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt van Rijn [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. View the Arts & Faith: Lent video reflection on this artwork.