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Beyond Forgiveness to Reconciliation

By Katrina J. Zeno

Catholic Way - Just because we don't hold grudges doesn't mean that we are living up to the true Christian ideal of reconciliation. Pope John Paul II reminds us with both his words and his action that true reconciliation is not achieved by merely tolerating those who may have hurt us, but by actively embracing them in love.

In the Jubilee Year the pope is on a mission and his mission is reconciliation.

Not only has Pope John Paul II written and preached about forgiveness and reconciliation, he has incarnated it. His trip to the Holy Land last March toppled centuries-old walls of resentment, anger, and alienation. Where others barely achieved a crack, the pope sent walls tumbling down.

Why? Because the pope goes beyond forgiveness to reconciliation. He lives out St. Paul's words in 2 Cor 5:18: "All this has been done by God, who has reconciled us to Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation."

What is this ministry of reconciliation? Certainly reconciliation involves forgiveness and an apology, but it's more. Reconciliation goes beyond words to actions. Reconciliation restores the relationship to where it was before the offense. It accepts and integrates the offender back into our life.

This is not the "gospel" most of us want to hear; however, it was precisely the good news that Bishop Joseph Ekuwen of Nigeria announced at a national Catholic conference in England this past summer. In explaining the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation, Bishop Ekuwen said: "When someone offends you and makes an apology, you forgive them but keep them at an arms distance. You refuse to re-admit the other into your life. When you do this, reconciliation is missing."

Instead of keeping the other at an arm's distance, the bishop said, we must ask God for the grace of reintegration, of restoration. We must accept the offender back into our lives just as God accepted us back into His life. To illustrate his point, he turned to the parable of the prodigal son.

I have to admit that when he mentioned the prodigal son I rolled my eyes. What more was there to learn from this parable that has been milked for all its jubilee worth? Of course, I was wrong. Here's a condensed version of Bishop Ekuwen's explanation:

At one point in time (i.e., before original sin), we lived in harmony with the father (God) and the elder brother (others). We lived in joy and happiness. Then, through our offense (wishing the father were dead, i.e., original sin) we broke the relationship and went our own way. However, despite our unfaithfulness, God was always faithful; he was constantly expecting our return. When we return, the Father not only forgives us, He reconciles us to the family (i.e., the ring, robe, sandals, and festive celebration). He reintegrates us into the life of the family.

And what's the elder son's beef? He would hear nothing of reconciliation. He didn't want to take his brother back into the family. He wanted to keep him at an arms distance. He refused to restore the relationship to where it was before the offense.

Wow, did that make me look at my relationship with God differently! I finally understood reconciliation not merely as God turning a blind eye to all the bad things I've done, but reintegrating me into the family. God doesn't keep me at an arms distance, but he puts me right in the middle of the perfect family, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And what about my relationship with others? As children of God we must try to live out our Christian life in imitation of God. That means we can't just forgive, we must also reconcile. Here, Bishop Ekuwen was very direct: "Is there someone on this globe who offended you and you have forgiven, but not allowed back into your life as it was before the offense?" he asked the crowd. "This is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of our Christian life because many people forgive, but they do not reconcile, they do not take back fully those who offended them."

He's not kidding. I've seen it in living color: families split by squabbles over money; two Christian sisters who were best friends but now cordially tolerate each other because of an incident with their children; spouses who occupy the same living quarters but are emotionally distant. As for me, it didn't take two seconds for the Holy Spirit to show me the people I keep at an arms distance: my former husband, two of my sisters, friends whose values I don't share. And now the bishop asking me to integrate these people back into my life. That's beyond heroic; it's saintly.

But that's precisely why Pope John Paul II makes headway. He never keeps another at arm's distance Jew, Orthodox, humanist, or assassin. He didn't just speak about forgiving his assassin; he went to his prison cell and embraced him. He welcomed him back into his life, into the family, thus reminding the whole world that God has welcomed us back in Christ.

In this Jubilee Year, may each of us embrace this ministry of reconciliation. May we become imitators of God and Pope John Paul II by going beyond forgiveness to reconciliation.

Copyright Katrina J. Zeno

Katrina welcomes your comments. Email her at

Katrina J. Zeno, a freelance writer and speaker on topics such as the nature of men and women, singles and romance, the culture of life, the new feminism, prayer, and parenting, is also co-foundress of Women of the Third Millennium, an organization that promotes the dignity and vocation of women through one-day retreats.  Her articles and interviews have appeared in numerous periodicals, including Our Sunday Visitor, New Covenant Magazine, Catholic Parent, and Franciscan Way, and she has spoken in the U.S., Canada, England, and Trinidad.
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