Michael Durbin is V.P. and General Manager of Midwest Diversified Technologies, Inc., and has been a part-time graduate student at Aquinas Institute of Theology for the past four years. Michael delights in the awareness of our spiritual journey in life.
This article will examine a spirituality of ministry in relationship to conversion and forgiveness, identifying the need to forgive oneself, forgive one’s family and community, and the need to forgive the institutional Church. Forgiveness is essential to understanding our ministerial role and revealing the needs and requirements of those around us. Without forgiveness our relationship with God becomes stagnant and does not develop. Our communal and sacramental life also becomes lifeless and self-absorbed. Our prayer time becomes occupied with hurts and faults of ourselves as well as others. Our human and holy relationship comes to a stand-still. Our desire to develop an intimate relationship with God is impeded by personal hurts, perceived, received and given, which require healing.
In order for forgiveness to take place it is necessary to experience conversion of heart; a transformation of ourselves. Our thought processes and our behaviors need to change. The process of conversion is not something that we can initiate, but it is something to which we can respond to from awareness and attentiveness.
Bernard Lonergan identified three types of conversion: intellectual, moral and religious (see Lonergan, 238-242). Intellectual conversion is knowing which goes beyond our senses of touching, tasting, smelling, hearing and seeing. Intellectual conversion includes experiencing, understanding, judging, and believing.
Moral conversion takes place when we abandon personal self-satisfaction and make decisions and choices based upon values which we hold more important. Moral conversion does not mean moral perfection. It means that we are aware of what is morally correct but we may still be a slave to our passions. Saint Paul lamented that he did not understand his own actions as he did not do what he wanted, but continued to do the very thing he hated (see Romans, 7:15) We must discover our individual, group and general biases which keep us from true moral conversion.
Religious conversion is being in the grasp of an overpowering total love that elicits an unconditional love response that affects us emotionally, intellectually and very often physically. We often attribute this experience to the Holy Spirit. We completely surrender ourselves to being in love with God. We recognize that God is our ground and that we are nothing without God. This experience is most difficult to describe as we do not always have an adequate vocabulary to express the experience.
God is always providing us opportunity to experience, question, judge and make decisions about the people and actions within the world taking place around us. Thomas Aquinas understood this as the experience of the Incarnate Word of Jesus. Through the incarnate Jesus, God descended to us in the human form, using human words as understood in our world, and we must use the same means of communication to respond and ascend again to Our Father (see Congar, 117). Traditionally, we have understood this as grace; God’s grace acting upon us. But grace understood as the source of love must be returned as love. Love must become our response.
The practice of psychological counseling, prayer, and proper spiritual direction can result in God’s healing grace which can provide us strength for forgiveness of the many hurts that we inflict upon or receive from each other. We must be attentive and aware of God’s call to conversion and our need to respond. The call and response is not necessarily supernatural but very natural as it takes place with the people and the world around us. Our response is an act of free will and it must be intentional. We cannot fall into conversion by accident. We must be fully aware and fully vulnerable to accept what will be required of us for conversion. We recognize the love of God and we intentionally respond with love. We intentionally respond in a loving manner to Jesus, our incarnate God, to our self, and to our community through the sharing and reception of the sacraments.
Our conversion takes place when we respond through prayer in relationship with God and when we respond charitably in relationship with those around us. Our intentional change or conversion results in behavioral change which is observable and measurable. Our relationship with those around us is the means by which we come to know the incarnate Jesus.
Jesus provided us many examples of healing and forgiveness as well as how we should pray to Our Father. A passage from John’s Gospel (John 20:19-23) is often cited as an example of how we are to forgive.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
This passage is most often interpreted, and preached from the pulpit, as Jesus assigning the authority for forgiveness of sins to the institutional Church. The Church is given the authority to forgive and to retain sins. Forgiveness is an act performed by the Church to absolve sins. This authority is given by Jesus to the Church. This is the traditional understanding of this Gospel pericope, but the passage cries out for another interpretation.
The story begins in the evening on Sunday; the very day of Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples are a small group and they are gathered together because of their common fear of being beaten or crucified for following Jesus. This gathered fearful group is no “church”; they are a Jewish faction of men and women who have lost their beloved leader to crucifixion and they are worried that they may now be subject to the same fate. Some of the disciples have been notified that earlier in the day Jesus had risen from the dead and Mary Magdalene had seen and talked to Jesus. As if there was not enough to be afraid about, some of the disciples are now seeing ghosts!
There are some very human and very natural emotions that we can presume were present with the disciples in the room. As a group they are anxious and fearful. As individuals they are just plain scared and wondering if they will live to see the next day. They are also angry with one another and blaming each other for getting themselves into this mess. These crazy rumors brought by Mary Magdalene that Jesus is alive and risen from the dead only make the hurt and anger worse. The disciples are also likely to be angry with Jesus for coming to Jerusalem, getting himself killed, and placing them all at risk. The disciples’ anxiety levels are at the breaking point. With everything that has happened, and continues to happen, the disciples really miss the calming influence of Jesus.
Jesus always knew what to do. Jesus would speak to the disciples and calm them. Jesus spoke to their hearts. Jesus spoke to the disciples as personal friends and as individuals. When Jesus appeared to the disciples he immediately says, “Peace be with you”. He is telling them to calm down. He is telling them that he is with them and that everything will be okay. He shows them his wounds so that they know he is real. Jesus emphasizes his call for calmness by saying a second time, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus is not only greeting the disciples and emphasizing the need for calm and cool heads, he is also notifying the disciples of their mission; of their challenge.
Jesus then breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is revealed as life. Breath is life. The breath of Jesus exhaled upon the disciples is the love of God as revealed in the Holy Spirit to bring life. The call of love from God brings life and must be returned as love, with our life, when we respond to God. The challenge to the disciples is to respond in love as they are given love: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. Jesus, sent in love by the Father, now sends his disciples in love to the world.
The forgiveness of sins is an admonition given by Jesus to the disciples as a challenge that must be met by each of them if they are to live in love with the Trinity, and if they are to live in love with each other. This is an individual challenge as well as a community challenge. It is a daily challenge for the individual members of the community as well as the entire community. We are all called to forgive sins.
If we forgive the sins of anyone, including ourselves, they are forgiven. If we retain the sins of anyone, including ourselves, they are retained. Psychologically, Jesus is telling the disciples that for good mental health it is necessary to let go of the pain and hurt they have caused themselves and the pain and hurt they have caused others. Forgiveness of sins is necessary for the disciples to enter into a loving relationship with God and each other.
Jesus is speaking to a theology of forgiveness which is necessary for our very salvation. Jesus is also pointing out that when we hold onto sin, our own sin, others’ sin, or the sin of the institutional Church, we are damaging our relationship with God. When we receive the Holy Spirit we are receiving the gift of love from God. Because we are beings with free-will we have the choice to accept or to deny the offer of love, and forgiveness, from God.
When we accept the offer of love from God we respond in love and the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity bring gifts from God through the Holy Spirit. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are for us and cause us to exhibit changed and converted behavior. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit include wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, piety, fortitude and fear or extreme respect of the Lord.
When we enter into relationship with God, we become transformed and we begin to exhibit a change in behavior that is often identified as Fruits of the Holy Spirit. The Fruits of the Holy Spirit are tangible and palpable. They can be observed and felt by those around us. The fruits are not for us but are an expression of God’s goodness working through us for the good of those around us. God’s gifts to us are realized by others working with us as virtues. The fruits can be named and include: charity, joy, peace, mildness, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, modesty, longanimity, continency, and chastity.
Relationship with God quite literally results in transformation of the human by the Holy Spirit. We no longer desire to retain psychologically unhealthy behavior that prevents us from coming closer in relationship to God. We begin to shed our self of biases. We accept the offered gift of understanding and we forgive ourselves.
Likewise, we no longer have a desire to retain unhealthy hurts and memories about our family and community. With the grace of the Holy Spirit we make an intentional choice to forgive and we intentionally seek love and forgiveness in return. Very often, our transformed behavior compels us to seek reconciliation with offended family members, members of the community or with the Church.
If we choose to deny the offer of love from God we retain the sins. We keep the sins of our self as well as the sins of others. We do not let go of the sins and we keep our self from experiencing the love of God in a close prayerful relationship and we deny our self the experience of a close loving relationship with our family and our community. When we retain the sins of the institutional Church we distance ourselves from the Body of Christ and we deny ourselves the grace of the sacraments. When we deny the Holy Spirit to do his work with us and with our church community we are only hurting ourselves.
When we choose to retain the sins of our self and the sins of others, we choose to distance our self from God. We are creating an impediment to our own salvation. We are making a choice and we are intentionally denying the forgiveness of sins in our self and in others. Our response to retain sins may be logical and it may be righteous, but it is not healthy and it is not holy. Whose relationship with God is impaired by the retention of sins? Is it the person whom you will not forgive, or yourself? Perhaps the person you will not forgive is in a healthy and loving relationship with God and the rest of the community. The person you will not forgive may not even be aware of the hurt you continue to carry. Perhaps he or she sought reconciliation with you many years ago and you chose to retain his or her sin. His or her answer to your lack of forgiveness may have been to forgive your stubbornness. In this scenario, the lack of forgiveness hurts no one but you.
If we fail to forgive our self we are placing our own ego and our own intentions ahead of God. We are declaring our self to be better qualified than God to judge. We are allowing our pride to control that which does not belong to us: God’s forgiveness. Negative and self-destructive behavior cannot always be dealt with in spiritual direction but may require professional psychological help.
If we need further proof for a theology of ministry based upon forgiveness we should look to The Lord’s Prayer. As we recite the words of the prayer that Jesus taught us, we become aware of the following phrase: “…and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We are asking God to forgive us our sins just as we forgive those who sin against us. We are making a promise, perhaps an implied contract, that we will forgive others who require our forgiveness, as long as God forgives us our sins. What happens when we do not forgive the sins of others, but we retain them? Does God stop forgiving us our sins and begins to retain our sins? Probably not, but God certainly could! When Jesus taught us to pray he was teaching us how to live. Forgiveness is a necessary part of life that we all must recognize if we are to have life and live it fully.
Many of us recite The Lord’s Prayer daily. Some of us use the prayer for contemplative reflection daily. Our daily spiritual journey requires us to be attentive and aware of the Divine Indwelling (see Keating, 5). The Holy Trinity is present within us on every level of our lives, from the most physical to the most spiritual. The human and the holy are united in prayer and in action. Our call to holiness requires us to develop a theology of forgiveness which will benefit us in our entire life as well as in our ministry. A healthy theology of spirituality based upon forgiveness should be reflected in a life of goodness that is seamless and uninterrupted in expression. As a member of the Body of Christ we should reflect the forgiveness of Jesus as seen and experienced by the world.
At the risk of proof texting a theological spirituality of forgiveness, in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus responds to a question from Peter about, “… how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matthew, 18:21). The response given by Jesus is not to be taken literally, but is to be understood as an infinite number of times that Peter must forgive. The message from Jesus is clear: if you are to become a Christ-follower you must become a person of infinite forgiveness.
The Body of Christ is not always a metaphor. The Body of Christ becomes a reality when Christian human beings, walking, talking and interacting with each other in the world, become an expression of the real presence of Christ. This Eucharistic language is intentional and is the mystery of God present in the world. We receive what we are and we become what we are. Our ministry is our “being”, and our being is in Christ. When the focus of our life is on Christ, our behavior is transformational and we quite literally become Christ-like. We no longer need to worry about “doing” ministry because we become ministry. The human and the holy is realized in the reality of our being like Christ.
(All scripture quotations are from the New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Oxford University Press, 2007.)
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Crosby, Michael H. The Dysfunctional Church: Addiction and Codependency in the Family of Catholicism. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1991.
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Keating, Thomas. Fruits and Gifts of the Spirit. New York: Lantern Books, 2007.
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