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COLM MEANEY: Pandemic Amnesty? Only if done properly

One of the nicest evenings I have on the mission is a celebration of forgiveness. I begin by emphasising that the core, overriding message of our gathering is God’s mercy, which is offered freely. However, God’s grace may be free but it is not cheap. Christ highlighted the incongruity and unacceptability of asking for God’s mercy while denying that same mercy to our own enemies. Nonetheless, God’s overflowing, inexhaustible forgiveness is the focus of our evening’s ceremony.

I try to highlight the social nature of sin, how it affects others. In fact, as Aquinas wrote: “God is not offended by us except through that by which we act against our good” (Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.122). I use visual aids to make my points graphic: I wield a machete to highlight the various types of violence which scar, maim or kill – physically, verbally, emotionally. I display a plastic bag of sugar (heroine substitute) to focus on the prevalence of drug abuse and the damage and destruction caused by it. I place a cloth over someone’s eyes as a sign of “sins of omission”, how we shut our eyes to situations which cry out for comment or condemnation. Then time is given for each to reflect on what they need to change in their lives. I encourage them to try and identify one habit or weakness that could be the focus of both their penitence and renewal.

The actual meeting of the penitent and minister is quite unusual. Simply said, sinfulness and sorrow for sin are communicated in silence, through the clenching of both hands. The fists represent hardness and being closed: the fist is used to fight, the palm to caress; a closed fist cannot receive a gift, only an open hand can. The priest then opens the hands and says the words of absolution. From the priest, the forgiven then proceeds to have oil smeared on their open palms. The oil is actually Johnson’s baby oil, blessed to be used as the balm of healing. Finally they proceed to kiss a crucifix, expressing their gratitude to the Lord for his goodness.

The theme of forgiveness is especially relevant at this time, when the latest pandemic-connected trend is a call for an amnesty, to forgive and forget all that has happened since March 2020. The current focus is an article in The Atlantic magazine by Emily Oster, proposing “a pandemic amnesty”, because “we need to forgive one another for what we did and said when we were in the dark about COVID”. It might sound reasonable and mildly Christian, but actually it’s trying to cover-up 30 months of policies which have caused much misery and cost many lives. I find it consoling to read some of the comments by otherwise calm commentators, for example:  “I’m never going to forget what these villains did to me and my friends” and “While the most intrusive pandemicist policies have died an ignominious death, the toxic and idiotic cultural attitudes that supported them are still alive and well, and waiting – just waiting – to seize the levers of policy once again”. It’s salutary to remember that Emily Oster, professor at Brown University, was hell bent on the most draconian measures early in the pandemic (masking children, closing schools, and so forth). And now she’s calling for an amnesty; forgive and forget. So a few words about forgiveness may be timely.

First of all, forgiveness is a decision, not a feeling or an emotion; it’s more a state of mind, a mindset, than a reaction to what happens. I decide that the person who wronged me will not control my life forthwith. They will not dominate my life, notwithstanding the reality of what they did to me. In forgiving, I decide to set myself free of the possible strangulation which is resentment; I willingly choose to let it go, and so I am set free. Forgiveness is liberating; resentment is enslaving.

Yet the crucial point is that the decision to forgive says absolutely nothing about annulling the wrong done, or sweeping evils under the carpet, or granting guilty perpetrators some magical certificate of innocence.  Far from it: having forgiven, the strictest criteria of guilt and justice are still adhered to: not vengeance, mind you; that belongs to the Lord (Romans: 12:19).

A famous example of the distinction between the act of forgiving and the continuation of the penalty for the wrong-doing was the visit of Pope John Paul 2 to his would-be assassin, Ali Agca, who was serving time in prison for his attack. The Pope offered him complete forgiveness for what he had done, but in no way sought for any lessening of his jail term.

“Forgive and forget”? Not so fast! If we were expected to forget, then why would we have been born with a capacity to remember?  No, we will never forget many things in the all-too recent past: the disastrous damage that has been a constant since March 2020 – not accidental damage, but knowingly created. Ample warnings were offered from very early on, but these were ignored, and the concerned voices were duly vilified. No, we will never forget, so that we remain constantly alert concerning the depths of wickedness to which humans can descend. We will not forget the forced vaccinations; we will not forget almost three years of a new apartheid, when we were denied access to so many places; it won’t be forgotten how so many agreed so easily to go along with all the silly rules, and how so few of us tried to defy the insanity. Among the lamentable list of what will not be forgotten will be Pope Francis’ rather judgmental view on those of us who refused to wear a mask as living “in their own little world of interests”, and we can also recall the archbishop of Dublin’s words strongly advising that priests should not distribute Communion before or after Mass. Our continuing remembering is not some morose dwelling on dark times, which should be happily left behind. No, it is a therapeutic keeping before our eyes both the vileness perpetrated (and continuing) and the often lonely efforts of trying to resist the encroaching darkness.

And we will remember with happiness and relief the many new acquaintances we have made in the struggle to stand strong and remain committed.

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