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Forgiving our oppressors

Last month I wrote about how Christianity calls us to love the oppressed and the oppressor. It is this second part that we often forget. Indeed, when we talk about the church going out into the peripheries, we almost exclusively think of the areas of our culture and society occupied by the oppressed. 
 
And unfortunately, in a culture that increasingly uses identity politics and the status of victimhood as the currency for moral righteousness, the peripheries do not always welcome the Christian message of forgiveness. Nevertheless, we are called to love all, including the oppressors of our society, who deserve prayer and intervention as well. 
 
Do not take my word for this, however. This is the vision of Pope Francis, whose favorite novel is the 1827 work by the Italian Alessandro Manzoni titled “The Betrothed,” a book read to him repeatedly by his Italian grandmother.
 
Set in Italy in 1627, the young lovers Renzo and Lucia find their marriage thwarted by the machinations of the nefarious Don Rodrigo, the local baron and thug who wants Lucia for himself. Renzo flees their little town to save his life and Lucia manages to escape Rodrigo by hiding in a convent. However, even this sacred place is not safe, because she is then kidnapped by the biggest robber baron of the area, a man so feared that his name is never given by the author. He is called simply “The Unnamed.” 
 
This man is then so moved by the beauty and innocence of Lucia that he seeks out a visiting archbishop, Cardinal Federico Borromeo. Cardinal Borromeo (a historical person, cousin to St. Charles Borromeo) is advised by his chaplain to reject this visit by such a dangerous man. He may have been sent to kill the cardinal, after all. The cardinal would have none of it, scolds his chaplain and insists that “The Unnamed” come in.
 
When the two men meet, the saint and the sinner, there is a tense silence at first, each sizing up the other. Eventually the cardinal explains what a shame it was that he, the cardinal, had not gone out to visit “The Unnamed” himself. The robber baron was shocked. “You! Seek me? Don’t you know who I am?” The cardinal explains that he has prayed for “The Unnamed” for years, and that he knows the robber comes to bring him the good news that God has touched his soul. “The Unnamed” does not know how to explain what he is feeling in his heart. In the end, however, the pure, merciful love of Cardinal Borromeo converts the soul of “The Unnamed.” 
 
He cries out, “Oh! God! Thou who art truly great and good! I know myself now; I comprehend what I am; my iniquities are all before me; I abhor myself; but still – still I experience a consolation, a joy – yes, a joy which I have never before known in all my horrible life!” Thus it is that this oppressor is converted. It is not by shouting at him, accusing him, speaking truth to power. It is the cardinal’s humble example of Christian love. 
 
As we look at our society and see the many victims of oppression and injustice, we ought to be drawn toward loving action in their favor. But we must always guard against the self-righteousness that condemns the oppressors like the Pharisees condemned the tax collectors (see Lk 18:9-14). We are all sinners in search of the love of God. So, in humility we must pray for the oppressors, reach out to them, befriend them, invite them into the same joy that “The Unnamed,” that is, you and me, can find in Christ Jesus.
 
Deacon Omar Gutierrez is director of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Contact him at ofgutierrez@archomaha.org.
 

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