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Mercy and Forgiveness

“Forgiveness and reconciliation are central themes in Christianity and, in various ways, in other religions. Yet there is a risk that an inadequate understanding and presentation of these profound convictions can lead to fatalism, apathy and injustice, or even intolerance and violence.” (Pope Francis, "Fratelli Tutti," 237)

Scripture, papal teaching, and pastoral and theological reflection all contribute to our understanding of the importance and practice of mercy and forgiveness. Here, CMN aims to summarize theological underpinnings that clarify and expand notions of mercy and forgiveness and invite restorative justice as a vessel for creative acts of God’s justice and grace.  

Mercy: God’s Love in Contact with Sin and Suffering

In prior sections, we explored God’s vision of justice as shalom: a state of being in right relationship with God, one another, and all of creation. Harm, violence, and oppression shatter this divine vision of peace and wholeness. In Catholic tradition, we understand mercy as God’s love coming into a transformative relationship with such sin and suffering. In this way, mercy and justice exist as complementary expressions of God’s love. Together, they are an antidote to revenge and continuing cycles of violence. 

In “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis expounds that truth, an honest recounting of sins and failures, is the bridge between mercy and justice. In this way, we can understand restorative justice, which places a priority on truth and truth-telling, as a merciful approach to achieving God’s vision of justice. 

Forgiveness: Creative Acts of Freedom and Strength

Forgiveness is a human/divine expression of God’s merciful love. By allowing survivors to acknowledge wounds, heal memories, and let go of emotions such as anger and hatred, it creates a new relationship to the past and hope for a better future. 

Forgiveness is an act of freedom that cannot be imposed. The journey of forgiving is unique for each individual, who chooses to forgive in their own way and in their own time. Forgiveness is neither easy nor weak, but an act of strength — an offer of God’s shalom to those who have caused harm, and a recognition of their humanity.

Many people who forgive find their strength to do so in the grace of God. In the New Testament, neither Jesus nor St. Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr, forgive by their own power alone. They both call on God to forgive their executioners. Forgiveness is the choice of the victim and is independent of the attitudes of the perpetrator. This merciful love, freely offered, can open the potential for repentance and transformation among those who have caused harm.

Restorative Justice: A Merciful Path Toward Justice

Catholic tradition recognizes that forgiveness is never an obligation, but a creative act of invitation, possibility, and grace. Therefore restorative justice processes do not expect or require specific expressions of forgiveness. Rather, by tending to the impacts of harm in solidarity with one another, they become vessels for God’s mercy and grace to shape the labor of justice. Furthermore, as an expression of God’s merciful love, forgiveness does not preclude the search for justice but encourages a healing justice that upholds the dignity of all. 

“We are called to love everyone, without exception; at the same time, loving an oppressor does not mean allowing him to keep oppressing us….On the contrary, true love for an oppressor means seeking ways to make him cease his oppression....[F]orgiveness does not forbid us from seeking justice, but actually demands it.” (Pope Francis, "Fratelli Tutti," 241)


Reflection Questions

  • Consider a time when you have expressed or received forgiveness following harm or brokenness. What did it feel like? What made it possible? 

  • In your own words, how would you articulate the relationship between mercy, forgiveness, and justice?

  • In watching the video of the Grosmaire and McBride families sharing their story, what stood out to you? How did their restorative justice process realize a “creative act of invitation, possibility, and grace”?

Content contributors to this section included Ruth Cunnings.