Forgiving Those Who Trespass Against Us

In 1993, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the then-Archbishop of Chicago, was accused of having molested a young man in Philadelphia some two decades earlier. Unfortunately, this is an old story with an all-too familiar ending: A Catholic priest who abused his trust and authority to take advantage of a vulnerable young person. Right? And of course the church covered it up, right?

In this case, no. Because Cardinal Bernardin was actually innocent. Even so, he faced the accusations head on. He refused to waste church funds in his defense, and he agreed to cooperate with investigators and declared he would be vindicated. After 5 months, he was. It turns out the that man who had accused him was deeply troubled, dying of AIDS (and likely had been abused by a priest at some point). Bernardin had simply gotten caught in the crossfire. Yet the story doesn’t end there.

Hearing of the story of this troubled man, Bernardin reached out. He connected with his accuser and flew to meet him. He would come to—privately as well as publicly—forgive the man who had nearly ruined his life, and instead of being angry about it, focused instead on how much pain and suffering he must have experienced in his own life. A year later, when the man was dying, Bernardin would reach out again and be there for him. “I told him that in every family there are times when there is hurt, anger, alienation,” Bernardin would write, describing the church as a spiritual family. “But we cannot run away from our family. We have only one family, so we must make every effort to be reconciled.”

This whole series of events lines up with how the Stoics thought about being wronged and the concept of forgiveness. Marcus Aurelius would famously remind himself that people who do us wrong in the course of a day do so because they have been deprived of truth and philosophy. “The best way to avenge yourself,” he wrote, “is to not be like that.” Epictetus would say that we should, “Forgive others for their misdeeds over and over again. This gesture fosters inner ease.” Not only that, he said that we should, “Forgive ourselves over and over and over again. Then try to do better next time.”

Why? Because holding on those negative feelings never makes things better. “Anger always outlasts hurt,” Seneca would say. But forgiveness? Forgiveness is healing. It’s moving forward. It’s not forgetting, of course, that one shouldn’t allow themselves to be wronged over and over again by the same people in the same way. At the same time, we can’t allow our lives and our happiness to be defined by the fact that someone else—accidentally or deliberately—has hurt us. We must forgive and move on.

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