XXXII. Two related references to forgiveness follow in the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Like the realism of “daily bread,” Jesus here acknowledges that trespass is inevitable in a fallen world. If the response to guilt is retaliation, the trespasses grow ceaselessly and sin becomes more and more inescapable. The only remedy for this cycle of fault and punishment is forgiveness both received and given.
The theme of forgiveness pervades the entire Gospel. It is a prerequisite for true worship: “ … go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23f). It is the subject of Jesus’ parables such as the servant who is forgiven a huge debt but demands minor repayment from a fellow servant (Matthew 18:23-35). It is at the heart of the Prodigal Son story, with the merciful father and the resentful brother (Luke 15:11-32). And it is Jesus’ own prayer from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Forgiveness in itself does not erase, ignore, or forget harm. The damage done – physical, financial, reputational, moral – is real. Forgiveness brings healing, both to the sufferer and the wrongdoer, but it cannot undo the past. It requires personal transformation into a new reality that encompasses that harm but no longer makes it the motivation for retribution or revenge. The Cross is as ever our pattern to decode this mystery.
As the Pope notes, this can be hard for us to understand when we trivialize evils and harm – yet at the same time claim that the existence of such evils “proves” that God cannot exist. Further, when we view each person individualistically – ignoring the common bonds of humanity and within the Body of Christ – it seems like the harm is self-limiting. We forget that all of us suffer when the world becomes darker and more inclined to sin. Here again, only the Cross in all its richness fully accounts both for redemption and forgiveness. We cannot save ourselves, just as we cannot excuse ourselves, for harms done to others. God alone can – and has done so in Jesus.