Forgiveness . . . For Real
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” ~ Acts 7:60
News began to percolate on my Facebook Feed yesterday afternoon regarding the death of a Priest who once served at a Parish in New Jersey where I attended grade school for a number of years. I knew this Priest fairly well, albeit a long time ago. Like many of my friends growing up, I served as an altar boy at my Parish. Obsessed with “watching the seasons change” however . . . from football to basketball to baseball . . this would be the only non-sports related activity of my youth. I’d regularly avoid the annual Altar Boy Trip to Hershey Park, the movie nights at the Rectory and the other activities that some of my friends enjoyed that were organized through my church. Having recently moved to New Jersey from New York, I still considered myself a bit of an outsider and again, I was far more interested in improving my jump shot or my defensive techniques at first base than catching the latest Star Wars movie or going camping with a large group of boys who favored quarter arcades over quarterbacks.
But this priest was without question a charismatic and beloved figure, not only at the church but in the community at large. It would soon be revealed however that unlike the vast majority of priests ~ selfless and courageous shepherds who lead souls to heaven in relative anonymity ~ this priest was in fact notorious. . . for all the wrong reasons.
Father James T. Hanley was one of the first priests to be exposed for his sexual abuse of minors in the Archdiocese of Patterson, NJ. A diabolical predator, those “movie nights“ at the Rectory were opportunities for Hanley to ply young boys with alcohol, show them pornography, and proceed to sexually molest, abuse and assault them. The carnage left in his wake was brutal, as it is in all of these cases. I knew many of the victims, grew up with them in fact, and their tales are tragic. Lives were ruined, one was taken via suicide, and the ripple effect of these crimes impact generations to follow.
Hanley, in addition to his sexual disorder, was an alcoholic, claiming in a number of his depositions that he could not even recall many of these illicit encounters as he oftentimes blacked out as a result of his binge drinking. Jail cells and psychiatric wards were at times his home during his wayward and wasted life, and he ultimately died alone in a senior nursing facility, cause of death unreleased, however it is believed that he may have passed away due to the Coronavirus.
“Disgusting person . . . rot in hell!!”
“May you get what you deserve!”
“Hope he suffers over and over again.”
“I would’ve loved to have gotten him alone in a room for 5 minutes!”
“There is definitely a ‘special place’ in hell for this vile individual!”
These were but a few of the PG-rated comments that were made pertaining to the news of Hanley’s passing. Most of them are too vulgar to list here. But none perhaps was sadder than this remark, made by an old friend of mine whose father was one of my first basketball coaches and a Eucharistic Minister at our Church, a man humble and holy who I became good friends with in later years who is truly one of my favorite people in this world:
“There is no heaven, no hell, no god, and thanks Catholic Church for making this clear to me. But we make meaning in the universe when we care for each other and learn from what happens. Oh yeah and tax the churches.“
I can’t say for sure whether or not my friend came to his conclusion as a result of Hanley’s crimes, or the aggregate crimes of any one of a number of pedophile priests for that matter, but we do know that many have fled the Catholic Church and will will continue to do so over the cleric abuse crisis. Why anyone would leave Jesus because of Judas I’ll never know, but they do, and this only exacerbates the tragedy. His father must be heartbroken.
But amidst the myriad of profanity-laced vitriol and ill-will directed at Hanley in the Comments Section of the post, one thing was missing:
Not one person suggested that they would and/or we should pray for Hanley’s soul. Few even offered up prayers for the victims oddly enough, instead choosing to speculate on the eternal destination of Hanley’s soul, hoping in a few instances that a newer, more ghastly “level” of hell could be conjured up and created for him to eternally reside. Saint Athanasius once said “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, must extend their hands in prayer.” In the discussion that I reference, Saint Athanasius’ remarks would’ve been met with the same enthusiasm as a restaurant that featured fresh bat flown in from Wuhan, China as the house special.
All of this on the day that our 1st Reading (Acts 7:51-8:1) tells the story of the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr of our Church. The last words he uttered serve as the quote that kicks off today’s Reflection.
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” he cried out, as the stones hurled from the enraged “stiff-necked” mob that encircled him cascaded down relentlessly upon him. He then fell to his knees and exclaimed “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” as he breathed his last, eerily reminiscent of Jesus in his final moments on the cross.
Now that’s forgiveness. For real . .
How do we get there? How does one attain a Saintly level of forgiveness? That is, after all, what we are all called to do, to become Saints. To be Saints to others. I know a few people who remain furious at the guy in the beige BMW who cut him off in traffic two and a half weeks ago. God bless their memory; I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning.
But we all hold grudges. We’re all far too easily offended...too thin-skinned. We seek forgiveness, the wise among us do so by way of the sacrament that Jesus gave us, the sacrament in which he loves to pour out his divine graces, the sacrament of Reconciliation. Yet we’re not as quick to forgive others. To the person who said “I hope he (Hanley) gets what he deserves,” I wonder if this person hopes the same for themselves? I know I sure don’t wish that for myself. I have a hunch that if we as people “got what we deserved,” heaven would be as empty as the Florida Marlins’ Ballpark in September. Pandemic or no pandemic.
For the follower of Jesus, forgiveness is not optional. It is at the heart of the Gospel message. Truth be told however, forgiveness can at times make us feel uneasy, unnatural even. Role models are certainly few and far between nowadays, particularly in what I like to call the “Charles Bronson Culture,” wherein revenge and the “you put one of ours in the hospital, we’ll put two of yours in the morgue” mentality prevails, not only on the silver screen but in the workplace, the political arena and elsewhere. Resentment, rage, and righteous indignation are much easier and far more popular.
Truth by told, it’s impossible to forgive in the way that we are called to forgive. Impossible without God that is. Let’s go back to the opening words of today’s Reading. We are told that Stephen was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” The pursuit of the gifts borne of the Holy Spirit is a lifetime journey, one of the most important ”journeys within the journey” they we will make. These gifts ~ wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord ~ are freely given to all those who seek them by a God who only wishes we would ask for them far more frequently and in much greater quantity. For Saint Stephen during his seminal moment, the attainment of these gifts was no doubt garnered through hour upon hour of prayer and reflection. For Jesus on the cross, he was, by virtue of the Holy Trinity, the gifts of the Spirit personified. A perfect example. Saint Philip Neri elaborates and reflects upon Jesus’ perfect forgiveness as a means of personal motivation, that which we should strive for, when he says “if a man finds it very hard to forgive injuries, let him look at a Crucifix, and think that Christ shed all His Blood for him, and not only forgave His enemies, but even prayed His Heavenly Father to forgive them also.”
. . . Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. . . and help us too Lord, to forgive as you forgive.