The last act of St. Stephen was to forgive. He forgave the people who were stoning him to death, and asked God to forgive them as well. As we heard a few moments ago, the final words he spoke were directed to the Lord on behalf of his murderers! He said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
He called their act a sin; he implicitly recognized the fact that it was unfair and unjust—but he still forgave!
This shows us that even though forgiveness is difficult—sometimes EXTREMELY DIFFICULT—it is not impossible! If Stephen could forgive his murderers—as he was in the process of being murdered by them—then we, by the grace of God, can forgive the people who have hurt us in our lives.
But it’s not a magical process! That’s important for us to realize. It wasn’t that way for Stephen, nor is it that way for anyone else. Forgiveness doesn’t just happen. In order to forgive, we must first of all want to forgive, as St. Stephen wanted to forgive!
In this regard, it’s very helpful to recognize some of the positive benefits of forgiving others. Let’s face it, most people will not want to forgive, unless they understand that forgiveness is actually beneficial: beneficial to them personally; beneficial to their families; beneficial to their relationships in general.
This is something, thankfully, that even people in the secular world are beginning to realize and understand: that forgiveness, although difficult, brings many blessings into our lives. I found an article the other day, for example, on the web site of the Mayo Clinic that listed the following benefits of forgiveness: healthier relationships; greater spiritual and psychological well-being; less stress and hostility; lower blood pressure; fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety and chronic pain; and lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse (see “Forgiveness: Letting Go of Grudges and Bitterness,” by Mayo Clinic Staff).
On another secular web site, a psychologist mentioned 3 studies that were done that yielded the following results:
“One study from the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found forgiveness to be associated with lower heart rate and blood pressure as well as stress relief. This can bring long-term health benefits for your heart and overall health.
‘A later study found forgiveness to be positively associated with five measures of health: physical symptoms, medications used, sleep quality, fatigue, and somatic complaints. It seems that the reduction in negative affect (depressive symptoms), strengthened spirituality, conflict management and stress relief one finds through forgiveness all have a significant impact on overall health. (This is why many people have experienced physical healings when they have finally forgiven someone they needed to forgive.)
‘A third study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that forgiveness not only restores positive thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward the offending party (in other words, forgiveness restores the relationship to its previous positive state), but the benefits of forgiveness spill over to positive behaviors toward others outside of the relationship. Forgiveness is associated with more volunteerism, donating to charity, and other altruistic behaviors. (And the converse is true of non-forgiveness.)” (from “The Benefits of Forgiveness,” by Elizabeth Scott, M.S.)
Of course, as good as all these earthly benefits are, Catholics know that they pale in comparison to the ultimate and most important personal benefit of the forgiveness of others: forgiveness for ourselves, and eternal life!
Remember, God’s forgiveness of us is conditional on our willingness to forgive our brothers and sisters!
I hope no one is surprised by that fact. After all, we implicitly agree to it every time we say the Lord’s Prayer (as we will in a few minutes at this Mass!). I’m talking about the line where we say, “Forgive us our trespasses, AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESSPASS AGAINST US.”
Immediately after he taught his disciples the Our Father in Matthew 6, Jesus said the following: “If you forgive the faults of others, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours. If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.” (Matthew 6: 14)
Interesting, isn’t it? The only petition of the Our Father that Jesus elaborated on was the one that had to do with forgiveness!
That’s not a coincidence! Jesus knew what we needed to hear!
Heaven opened immediately for St. Stephen (as we heard a few moments ago) because he had no unforgiveness in his heart. None whatsoever. By the grace of God, he let it go (or never let it in in the first place!), so there was nothing blocking his passage into the kingdom.
If there is any unforgiveness in our heart right now toward anyone, today is the day to begin doing something about it! Remember, forgiveness is not an emotion, it’s a decision. It’s also, quite frequently, a process. (That’s especially true if the hurt we’ve experience from the other person is a really deep one—or one that we’ve experienced from them over and over again for many years.)
The important thing is that we’ve begun the process of forgiveness, and are working at it. One place to “work at it” is in prayer—utilizing a tool like the 5 “Forgiveness Steps” I shared in a homily several years ago.
(I think I’ll insert those into the bulletin next week, because I’m sure there are many people in the parish now who were not in the parish back then. And some of you who were here back then might have lost them.)
My prayer is that today’s homily will give each of us some added incentive to work at forgiveness constantly and to never stop—until the day when we each follow St. Stephen into the Lord’s eternal kingdom.