HE CATHOLIC CHURCH has always recognized that reconciliation is central to the mission entrusted to her by Jesus. Indeed, Christ's mission is to reconcile man to God. Through the cross Jesus did for us what we were unable to do, he paid the price for our sin. While we can experience God in a variety of ways, grace and mercy come to us only through the cross of Christ.
This act of reconciliation is worked out each day of our lives as we turn back to our loving Father. Jesus specifically entrusts his Church with the mission of reconciliation. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, "as the Father sent me, so I am sending you.... Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone's sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone's sins, they are retained." This aspect of the Church's mission can sometimes be troublesome. I know I had a difficult time coming to understand why the Catholic Church would claim this authority. However, in time I came to grasp two simple things. First, we are made in the image of God and commanded to share in his mission. Also, it is the life of God himself in me who forgives. My concerns evaporated. Now I marvel at how God looks after me. Instead of some nebulous experience, I can hear his mercy face to face in a very practical manner. God moves through his Church.
God also moves through me, since I am a part of his Church and share in its mission to the world. Not only do I constantly need mercy from God, but at the same time I must constantly give his mercy to others, that they might be reconciled to Jesus. Sometimes I receive mercy on wrongdoing towards me; sometimes it will mean receiving mercy from others for my own sin against them. Each is a different side of the same coin, the coin of mercy.
The practice of reconciliation is a process of gradual and continuous growth. As I come before the Father with my sin, I come more deeply into the experience his total love and goodness, which repulses me from deliberate rejection of that love and brings me to hate the sin that caused the breach. When I am sinned against by another, the memory of our Father's love makes me eager to reconcile. However, there are times when things seem to go otherwise. Frankly, sometimes the anger or hurt seems intense and I can be pretty resistant to any idea of reconciliation, at least for a time. When this happens, the Holy Spirit prompts me to recall how Jesus taught us to pray: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." In other words, I will be reconciled to God in the same way as I choose to reconcile (or not) with others. If I harden my heart against another I also harden my heart against God and render myself unable to receive his mercy. The teaching of the Church is very clear on this:
"Now — and this is daunting — this outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Love, like the body of Christ, is indivisible; we cannot love the God we cannot see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see. In refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters, our hearts are closed and their hardness makes them impervious to the Father's merciful love; but in confessing our sins, our hearts are opened to his grace."
It is helpful to remember that reconciliation is a decision, not a feeling. I can feel angry or hurt and still choose to forgive the person who caused the hurt. Sometimes the feelings will persist even after the reconciliation. That does not nullify my decision to forgive. I can still choose to reconcile and then deal with the feelings later.
I am constantly struck by the crucial importance that our Lord places on reconciliation. I have heard of deathbed experiences where the Lord would not take the person home until a particular reconciliation had taken place. Recently I had the opportunity to experience a bit of this firsthand.
One of my grandmother's sayings has been a standing joke in my family. She would always say, "If I die,..." That changed about a year and a half ago when she was diagnosed as having cancer. She died just before last Christmas. Her death, which was somewhat prolonged, brought to the surface some family disagreements. I experienced Jesus moving very powerfully in this situation. He used me to diffuse a very serious conflict among some close family members. But what really struck me was how my family came to peace during Grandmother's death and stopped quarrelling. It seemed that her stay in hospital would go on forever until that reconciliation happened. Once it did happen, her death progressed rapidly. I had the privilege to be praying by her bedside on her last night and I was struck by the serenity in that hospital room.
Reconciliation is not an optional extra. It is our way of life.