Sunday, April 28, 2013


Celebrating our 62nd wedding anniversary, Polly and I went to Mass at Sacred Heart in downtown Tampa.

It’s a lovely old church, with all the stain glass and statuary we old timers associate with our Catholic faith.

Getting settled in our pew, Polly discovered a note in the hymnal pocket. Obviously hand written by a young child, the message was clear and curious.

Here’s what it said: Kate: Dear Sis, I love you and forgive you. Love, Richard.

Made for an interesting chat at brunch later.

Forty boys and girls had made their first communion the day before. We guessed that the note was left by one of those children, newly admitted to the community of Christians, who was clearing the decks of conscience in preparation for receiving the sacraments.

Polly handed the note to me and whispered, “This calls for a blog.”

So here it is.

“I forgive you.”

I wondered who I would say those words to.

Frankly, I could think of no one.

Funny. I’ve been around this old place for eighty-three, going on eighty-four years. I know I have taken more than a few hits that left hurts, bruises, even scars.

But I’m dogged if I can call any to mind.

The old joke is that Irish Alzheimer’s consists of forgetting everything but the grudge. If so, I’m either not very Irish or not yet afflicted.

I seem to recall my father telling me, when I complained about bullies in the neighborhood, that I should simply forget their names. It really works. Hard to remember being mad at somebody when you can’t recall his name.

As a judge, it was often my duty to pronounce sentence on people convicted of crime. More often than not, they would have pled guilty, if not by way of throwing themselves on the mercy of the court, then more likely as a condition of a plea bargain to get out from under a more serious charge.

Our criminal justice system is founded on humane principles. It’s not a matter of revenge or retribution. We send people to a ‘penitentiary’ operated by the department of ‘corrections.’

A penitentiary is a place to do penance. It’s where people do time to make up from doing wrong.

In the Catholic tradition, penance is the price of forgiveness, given in response to contrition.

In theory, a criminal who pays his debt to society, if not forgiven, is at least reinstated as a member of society.

One wonders how the families of people killed in terrorist attacks are supposed to feel. How do you forgive the unforgivable?

When the law has run its course, when the culprits have been caught and convicted, when the full and proper process of criminal justice has run its course, how should we feel?

Should our guts be twisted with resentment and anger?

Should we harbor hatred, and the insatiable urge to visit murder and mayhem on anyone and everyone connected with those who do us harm?

Hammurabi’s code is famously remembered for the dicta “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

It is quoted in these times as justifying vengeance. In truth, the admonition was that revenge should be limited by the scope of the injury.

In short, Hamurabi was advising against escalation of feuds. Or as the old Irish ballad bemoans, “an eye for an eye and another for another until everyone is blind.”

The truth is that there is evil in the world. Sin is as much a part of nature as tsunamis. People do bad things.

But that’s because people are designed to be free.

If someone invented a pill that would prevent human beings from wrongdoing, would you take it? Would anyone?

Isn’t the right to do wrong the very definition of liberty?

Totalitarian governments may promise safety and security, but at what price?

In the last analysis, forgiving is not what we do for someone else. It’s what we do for ourselves.

It’s the balm that soothes aching hearts.

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