“I have often paused to reflect on the persistent question: how do we restore the moral and social order subjected to such horrific violence? My reasoned conviction, confirmed in turn by biblical revelation, is that the shattered order cannot be fully restored except by a response that combines justice with forgiveness. The pillars of true peace are justice and that form of love which is forgiveness”. These precise words were not uttered recently by Pope Francis but by another Pontiff, Saint John Paul ii , 20 years ago, on the occasion of the Message for World Day for Peace on 1 January 2002. The clarification is necessary because one could easily make the mistake of confusing the author of these words which resounded powerfully then: the message was printed following the tragedy of the Twin Towers, and is still relevant today during the terrible days of the invasion of Ukraine. Written and released in the aftermath of the US attacks, when shock and terror made those words on forgiveness appear even stronger, more courageous and paradoxical, the Message already had a title which said it all: There is no peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness. Not only the Catholic faithful, but also political authorities and those who can cooperate in seeking and finding a way for peace, should go back to this Message and re-read it.
“But in the present circumstances, how can we speak of justice and forgiveness as the source and condition of peace?”, the Polish Pope asked himself 20 years ago. And his reply was: “We can and we must, no matter how difficult this may be; a difficulty which often comes from thinking that justice and forgiveness are irreconcilable. But forgiveness is the opposite of resentment and revenge, not of justice”. Pope Francis too spoke about forgiveness during his homily on Palm Sunday, as he reflected on the mystery of the Crucified Jesus who forgives his executioners: “as he was being crucified, at the height of his pain, Jesus himself obeyed the most demanding of his commandments: that we love our enemies. Let us think about someone who, in our own lives, injured, offended or disappointed us; someone who made us angry, who did not understand us or who set a bad example. How often we spend time looking back on those who have wronged us! How often we think back and lick the wounds that other people, life itself and history have inflicted on us. Today, Jesus teaches us not to remain there, but to react, to break the vicious circle of evil and sorrow. To react to the nails in our lives with love, to the buffets of hatred with the embrace of forgiveness. As disciples of Jesus, do we follow the Master or do we follow our own desire to strike back”?
Forgiveness is indeed above all a personal matter as was also mentioned in the 2002 Message: “forgiveness inhabits people’s hearts before it becomes a social reality”. However, and this is important: “individuals are essentially social beings, situated within a pattern of relationships through which they express themselves in ways both good and bad. Consequently, society too is absolutely in need of forgiveness. Families, groups, societies, States and the international community itself need forgiveness in order to renew ties that have been sundered, go beyond sterile situations of mutual condemnation and overcome the temptation to discriminate against others without appeal. The ability to forgive lies at the very basis of the idea of a future society marked by justice and solidarity. By contrast, the failure to forgive, especially when it serves to prolong conflict, is extremely costly in terms of human development. Resources are used for weapons rather than for development, peace and justice. What sufferings are inflicted on humanity because of the failure to reconcile! What delays in progress because of the failure to forgive! Peace is essential for development, but true peace is made possible only through forgiveness”.
It is thus necessary to raise the bar of forgiveness from the personal one to a true and proper ‘politics of forgiveness’: “Only to the degree that an ethics and a culture of forgiveness prevail can we hope for a ‘politics’ of forgiveness, expressed in society’s attitudes and laws, so that through them justice takes on a more human character”. So wrote John Paul ii back then, and today Francis expands the discourse on forgiveness, from personal relationships to the world, comparing it to a large Golgotha where the climax of the mysterium iniquitatis is accomplished, as well as the triumph of mercy. “When we resort to violence, we show that we no longer know anything about God, who is our Father, or even about others, who are our brothers and sisters. We lose sight of why we are in the world and even end up committing senseless acts of cruelty. We see this in the folly of war, where Christ is crucified yet another time. Christ is once more nailed to the Cross in mothers who mourn the unjust death of husbands and sons. He is crucified in refugees who flee from bombs with children in their arms. He is crucified in the elderly left alone to die; in young people deprived of a future; in soldiers sent to kill their brothers and sisters. Christ is being crucified there, today”.
In this conflict, as in those terrorist attacks 20 years ago, the logic of fighting against our brothers and sisters, prevailed. They were no longer seen as human beings but as belonging to the so-called “axis of evil”, a mindset which increases the intensity of clashes, until they become almost “metaphysical” and therefore “sacred”. We must quash this temptation at the outset. In order to do so, the way of peace seen only as a re-arrangement of a broken equilibrium may prove insufficient. There is the need for “something more” which only forgiveness can make possible. The words in the 2002 Message once again express this decisive aspect in a clear way today just as they did back then. “True peace therefore is the fruit of justice, that moral virtue and legal guarantee which ensures full respect for rights and responsibilities, and the just distribution of benefits and burdens. But because human justice is always fragile and imperfect, subject as it is to the limitations and egoism of individuals and groups, it must include and, as it were, be completed by the forgiveness which heals and rebuilds troubled human relations from their foundations. This is true in circumstances great and small, at the personal level or on a wider, even international scale. Forgiveness is in no way opposed to justice, as if to forgive meant to overlook the need to right the wrong done. It is rather the fullness of justice, leading to that tranquillity of order which is much more than a fragile and temporary cessation of hostilities, involving as it does the deepest healing of the wounds which fester in human hearts. Justice and forgiveness are both essential to such healing”.
May the words of the Pontiffs and of the Church, which remind us of Jesus’ words on the cross, illuminate the minds of rulers and all peoples, once again gathered and lost on that hill at the doors of Jerusalem.