POTHOLES ON THE HIGH ROAD: FORGIVING THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US
by Father Gordon MacRae
Posted: 22 Mar 2011 09:00 PM PDT
If you just learned of the sudden death of someone who harmed you deeply, what would it take to pray for him? The agonizing triumph of conscience over revenge.
If you haven’t already, please go read “A Voice in the Wilderness,” a review of These Stone Walls published on Catholic Exchange last month. If you like it, please let Catholic Exchange know. I think there’s even a social media button you can just click. This might help with what sometimes feels like a futile effort to get Catholic media to see another side of the story of accused priests.
I was grateful that Catholic Exchange published “A Voice in the Wilderness,” but something that happened right afterward left me feeling very conflicted – especially in light of this brief paragraph:
“Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of These Stone Walls is what is not found there . . . These Stone Walls portrays articulately a spirituality for the wrongly imprisoned and it does so with grace, dignity, and a challenge to all of us to seek justice upon the high road.”
The timing of such high praise could not have been worse. A week after I read a hard copy of the Catholic Exchange review, I learned that one of the state prosecutors in my 1994 trial took his own life several months ago. I have no idea why he did this terrible thing. I am told that he left behind a wife and child and other family.
His death had nothing to do with me, of course. It has been well over sixteen years since my trial, and though it was not at all a forum for the truth, I have no reason to doubt that the prosecutors just went on to other cases without ever giving me or that trial another thought. I knew very little about this man beyond his unjust prosecution of the case against me.
Like some prosecutors have recently been exposed for doing in hundreds of cases of DNA exonerations nationwide, my prosecutor ran with the case not because he should get a conviction, but because he could. But to even accept my crisis of conscience at his death, you would also have to accept at face value my declaration that I was convicted at that trial without having actually committed the crimes charged. Some do accept that basic truth, and I’m told that number is growing fast.
But many don’t accept it, and some of those who don’t – or won’t – are Church officials who don’t want to admit taking the easy way out, blindly settling untrue claims at the expense of their priests’ basic civil and canonical rights. It’s easier for them to support an unjust prosecution than to stand up for the truth. I’m left having to write about this without leaving the high road that’s now expected of TSW. Otherwise, I’m just another disgruntled and dissenting priest. I already wrote of how the rights of accused priests are trampled upon in my three-part series, “When Priests Are Falsely Accused.” There’s more to be written on this topic, and it will be written.
IN THE HIGH ROAD’S BREAKDOWN LANE
Sometimes I feel I haven’t really traveled very far up that “high road” of justice that Catholic Exchange attributed to These Stone Walls. A few weeks ago when I hung up the telephone after hearing of the suicide of my prosecutor, I said nothing to anyone. I just went to my prison cell – the cell he helped put me in over 16 years ago – and went on about my day. It was a strange irony that the day I learned of this was my 6,000th day in this prison. Prisoners really do calculate such things, but you won’t see any scratch marks on these stone walls.
Even with that strange piece of knowledge, I put the suicide of my prosecutor out of my conscious mind because I just didn’t want to think about it. Over the next few days it weighed heavily on me, but I didn’t want to face what was really going on.
What was really going on was this: I have every right to feel bitterness and anger toward a man who manipulated my accusers’ lies, ignored and suppressed exculpatory evidence, and took part in a trial-by-media that was like a pre-trial lynch mob. And it wasn’t only him. My own diocese issued a pre-trial press release declaring me guilty while shielding another priest who was also accused by my accusers, and who fled the state before my trial (see “Truth in Justice“).
In the end, this prosecutor helped send a priest to prison in a high profile case that also helped him make a political name for himself. So damn right I’m angry! You would be angry too, and as I quoted Sheriff Buford Pusser in “Walking Tall,” our collective silence about it all only gives him and others like him “the eternal right to do the same damn thing to any of you!”
Okay, I just used “damn” twice in the same paragraph – a first for TSW and not exactly very priestly. Sorry! But that’s the problem. I’m also a Catholic priest. I knew from the moment I heard of my prosecutor’s death that I was going to have to pray for mercy, and even forgiveness, for the soul of the man who left me to die in this dungeon even after he knew that I could have left this place fourteen years ago had I been guilty and willing to say so. Now, the very priesthood I am struggling to preserve against the will of my accusers – and the will of my bishop – requires that I have to pray for the man who put me in this position in the first place.
Over the years in parishes, and especially over the years in this prison, many people have come to me with the burden of incalculable wounds caused by others. They want to be free of the crushing resentment they carry, for it only harms them. But they don’t know how to shed it. It results in the same sleepless nights I wrote of in “Protect Us from all Anxiety” on Ash Wednesday.
To accomplish what I was obligated to do – to pray for my prosecutor’s soul – meant that I had to put aside any sense of gloating, any vague notion that I am somehow vindicated by his obvious suffering and despair. Before I could really pray for him, I might even have to forgive him and at least set in motion the process of letting go of my anger about the wounds he inflicted on me.
I have had to pray for people I do not like at all. I have had to pray for people I just plain despise, and for people with whom I was angry. But I never before felt so conflicted. I wasn’t sure that I would ever pray for this man. My psyche was suddenly at war with my soul, and night after night after hearing this news, I struggled between my human desire to just hate him and the path to redemption set before me: the mandate to pray for those who persecute us.
My struggle wasn’t exactly reflecting the “spirituality for the wrongly imprisoned” that Cardinal Dulles and Catholic Exchange envisioned for These Stone Walls. I was failing miserably in that regard, stuck in the high road’s breakdown lane, torn and conflicted, knowing that what I wanted to do was the polar opposite of what I should to do, and must do. After three days at war with myself, I asked God’s forgiveness for my failure to pray for the soul of my unjust prosecutor. Now I ask for your forgiveness as well. I am a good man. I know I am. But sometimes I am not a very good priest.
Being a priest in prison is such a difficult thing. The men around me – both those guilty of their crimes and those not – are mostly very bitter, spiritually and emotionally damaged individuals. If I told them that my prosecutor took his own life, most would cheer. If I said I was thinking about praying for his soul, most would ask if I have lost my mind. Some would be outraged by the very notion of it. With but one or two exceptions, other prisoners would not respect my struggle at all. Anger is too often their most available emotion, and living with their daily tides of bitter resentment for 6,000 days and nights of this long-Lent-with-no-Easter-in-sight sometimes leave me wondering if priesthood is just slowly slipping away and just a memory.
But all of that is an excuse, not an explanation. I haven’t cheered. I haven’t taken any solace in the suffering and death of my prosecutor, despite a part of me noisily nudging me in that direction. I’ll tell you the outcome of my Lenten crisis in a moment.
THE MAN IN THE MIRROR
The entire affair left me back at square one, at the same point I wrote of when we began These Stone Walls. In “St. Maximilian Kolbe and the Man in the Mirror,” I struggled over who would win the battle for my own soul. Would the priest or the prisoner prevail? Once again I found myself staring at the image of St. Maximilian Kolbe in both his prison and priestly garments – the image on our TSW Home Page. Priesthood can become a terrible burden in a place like this. Prison can overwhelm it and silence it, and I might not even notice until a crisis like this one comes along.
Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas has an excellent article in the March 2011 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review entitled, “What shall we do with our enemies?” He wrote of a true story about author and Holocaust survivor, Simon Wiesenthal and his encounter with a dying Nazi guard who participated in the murder and torture of hundreds of Jews. Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik first told of this encounter in a 1993 First Things article entitled, “The Virtue of Hate“:
“Wiesenthal silently contemplates the wretched figure lying before him, and then, unable to forgive but unable to condemn, walks out of the room. Tortured by his experience, Wiesenthal submitted this story as the subject of a symposium . . . The respective replies of Christians and Jews revealed a great divide.”
The Jewish respondents were mostly of the opinion that Simon Wiesenthal acted as justly as anyone could. The Christian respondents thought he was wrong – that he should have forgiven the dying Nazi. Some might argue that the Christian response was easy – even a sort of cheap grace. It was not, after all, six million of the Christians’ husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters who were systematically murdered in the Nazi camps. Forgiveness is more difficult when the abomination hits closer to home.
In the midst of my own crisis about forgiveness, I had the fortune (or misfortune) to read Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham’s HPR article. One line in the article told me all that I needed to hear: “God gave humanity the means for its own redemption.” That refers to our capacity to forgive, and even to pray for our enemies as the Gospel prescribes (Luke 6: 27-28).
So, yes, in the end, I did pray for my persecutor and my prayer wasn’t anything like, “Lord, please see things the way I do!” – though sometimes I wonder why that particular prayer isn’t included in the Church’s Enchiridion of Indulgences.
So don’t be too tough on me, please. I eventually did what I was supposed to do. I prayed the Office of the Dead for my unjust prosecutor, and I offered his name in the prayers for the dead at Mass, and I asked the Lord to forgive him his sins – including his sin of despair.
Then I did something that was a lot harder to do. I offered some of my days and nights in the very prison that this man helped put me in so unjustly. I offered three out of those 6,000 days and nights for his soul. Whether he deserved such an offering or not far exceeds my pay grade. That much is up to God.
So, have I forgiven this man? It seems a moot point now. The baggage of resentment evaporated with my prayer. No matter how hard I try, I just cannot pray and hate in the same sentence.
So if there is someone out there you just can’t forgive, someone who hurt you so much that you are burdened with the sheer weight of it, and cannot put it down, then prepare for the moment when you will offer prayer for that person, and maybe even the sacrifice of some of the very suffering that person imposed. Offer it as a share in the suffering of Christ and the garment you wear – like Saint Maximilian Kolbe’s – will no longer be divided. You cannot both pray for a person and hate him at the same time. I’ve tried it, and it cannot be done.
“And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. And they cast lots for his garments.” (Luke 23:34).
Editor’s Note: Several of you have expressed a desire to join Fr. MacRae in a Spiritual Communion. He celebrates a private Mass in his prison cell on Sunday evenings between 11 pm and midnight. You’re invited to join in a Holy Hour during that time if you’re able.
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