Tuesday, March 9, 2010

St. Frances of Rome (1384-1440)

Frances’s life combines aspects of secular and religious life. A devoted and loving wife, she longed for a lifestyle of prayer and service, so she organized a group of women to minister to the needs of Rome’s poor. Born of wealthy parents, Frances found herself attracted to the religious life during her youth. But her parents objected and a young nobleman was selected to be her husband. As she became acquainted with her new relatives, Frances soon discovered that the wife of her husband’s brother also wished to live a life of service and prayer. So the two, Frances and Vannozza, set out together—with their husbands’ blessings—to help the poor. Frances fell ill for a time, but this apparently only deepened her commitment to the suffering people she met. The years passed, and Frances gave birth to two sons and a daughter. With the new responsibilities of family life, the young mother turned her attention more to the needs of her own household. The family flourished under Frances’s care, but within a few years a great plague began to sweep across Italy. It struck Rome with devastating cruelty and left Frances’s second son dead. In an effort to help alleviate some of the suffering, Frances used all her money and sold her possessions to buy whatever the sick might possibly need. When all the resources had been exhausted, Frances and Vannozza went door to door begging. Later, Frances’s daughter died, and the saint opened a section of her house as a hospital.
Frances became more and more convinced that this way of life was so necessary for the world, and it was not long before she requested and was given permission to found a society of women bound by no vows. They simply offered themselves to God and to the service of the poor. Once the society was established, Frances chose not to live at the community residence, but rather at home with her husband. She did this for seven years, until her husband passed away, and then came to live the remainder of her life with the society—serving the poorest of the poor.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew (18.21~35)

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow- servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. His fellow- servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow- servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how My Heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.

(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

At this point in history perhaps the most serious issue for peace in the world is the conflict in the Middle East, and in particular the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The conflict is long, bitter and intractable. There are several fundamental issues, but it would appear that there is also the refusal by each side to forgive. Each may regard it as perfectly reasonable that it refuse to forgive the atrocities committed by the other, but ordinary reflection would suggest that unless there is a breakthrough in the impasse of this refusal, the cauldron will continue unabated. So we are led to think of forgiveness in the life of fallen man. In respect to the conflict just mentioned, both sides represent religions which look to Abraham as their common father, but which from the later years of Mahomet himself have been in conflict with one another. The call to forgive stands, but the involvement of religion in the situation raises the question of the prominence that each of these two religions give to forgiveness. How important, how critical, is it to the practitioner of Judaism and Islam that he or she forgive? Is forgiveness an imperative, an imperative whatever be the injury, an imperative for retaining or gaining the favour of God? I am not aware that, in either Islam or in Judaism, it is understood that forgiveness is an absolute imperative no matter what the injury. Nor am I aware that it is an absolute requirement in, say, Hinduism or Buddhism or, say, Zoroastrianism. I do not think it could be maintained that forgiveness is the key to the thought of the great natural philosophers who profess to construct their systems on reason. In general, forgiveness is recognized as a noble quality and quite necessary if progress in difficult human relations is to be attained. Society requires that people forgive others — but, to a point. We ought forgive, but to a point. Beyond that, forgiveness is unreasonable. The distinguishing — nay, the astonishing — feature of the Christian religion is that we are commanded by our divine Founder to forgive always and from the heart, no matter what be the injury or the debt. If this is refused, there will be divine sanctions.

The old image of an injury being requited by means of a formal duel would be abhorrent to Jesus Christ. That is not to say that crimes are to be allowed by society to go unresisted and unpunished, for such a path would spell the end of law and social concord. But the teaching of Jesus Christ is concerned with what goes on in the human heart. As St Paul puts it, we must put on the mind of Jesus Christ. The heart must forgive any and every injury. In various passages of the New Testament this teaching comes through clearly and insistently. The Lord’s Prayer gives special prominence to the forgiveness which we promise, when asking God for his forgiveness. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, we pray. Having taught this Prayer, our Lord concludes by warning of the sanctions associated with the failure to practise forgiveness: Yes, if you do not forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will not forgive you yours. In our parable today, the command to forgive is absolutely at the forefront, and our Lord concludes with these words: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:21-35). Now, this forgiveness from the heart can be a most difficult thing to do. It can seem impossible, and because of this it can be quietly shelved, quietly ignored, and never really presented to one’s conscience in its entirety. Because of this we can go along day by day with a certain level of generosity in fulfilling our duties before God, but all the while ignoring the most fundamental ones. Am I forgiving those who have injured me? Am I trying to forgive them? Am I asking for the grace to do this? What our Lord says elsewhere in a different context, is applicable here. For man, it is impossible, but not for God. For God all things are possible. We ought pray for the grace to remember — in a way the servant of the master failed to remember — the goodness of God in our regard. He has forgiven us, so we ought forgive our neighbour. Let us then steep ourselves in the fundamental fact of life, which is the love and forgiveness of God in our regard. On this basis we shall find the wherewithal to forgive and love others when they trespass seriously against us.

So serious is this challenge in the life of each person that it may even be regarded as the principal challenge and duty of life. It could be the work of a life, and it could take a lifetime. But, if at the end of our lives we have from the heart forgiven everyone who has injured or offended us, we shall be in a good condition to depart from this life for our meeting with God our Judge. Let us not leave it to the last minute, then! Let us get down to it this very day, forgiving those who have injured us, and forgiving them from the heart. Let us pray for the grace, and then do it!

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