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The ‘scandalous’ love of God

‘Hope is… Being Loved’ was the title of the talk given by Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications at the annual Novena of Hope in the Graan Passionist Monastery just outside Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh. The novena is well established over many years, and the monastery chapel was packed at both 12.30pm and 7.30pm. Many of the congregation had travelled considerable distances  from the neighbouring counties of Donegal, Sligo and Down. They were warmly welcomed by Father Charles, the superior of the Passionist community in the Graan, and he gave a special word of greeting to the local protestant Bishop Pringle, who had come with his wife, Heather.

After the readings at Mass, Pat spoke about about her own experience of almost losing all hope and feeling abandoned by God after the death of her mother and the break up of her marriage, all in the one year. She spoke of feeling she was “in the bottom of a pit and so far down there was no hope of ever seeing light again.” Her breakthrough to hope came in being able to identify with Christ on the cross who cried out in agony to his Father, “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” She said that she was able then to accept that faith in God does gives us answers to the mystery of suffering but rather opens us to the truth that, as Christians, we believe in a God who had the integrity to suffer as one of us, and who stands in solidarity with us during times of pain and crisis. “Christian hope is a stance in this life not a guarantee of a future in the next. It’s about living a life that has the shadow of the life, death and resurrection of Christ cast over it. The paschal mystery, that pattern of living, giving, dying and rising up again, indelibly marks the life of any Christian who dares to hope,” she said.

Jesus also spoke words of forgiveness from the cross for his torturers and those who conspired to have him executed. Pat also spoke about the importance of forgiveness and mercy as a key constituent of a love that gives hope. She said that the loving mercy of God was quite scandalous, especially to a modern sensibility. “Nowadays it’s believed that wrongdoers can only be forgiven if they’ve admitted their offences, expressed sorrow, and accepted their due punishment. But in the Gospels Jesus speaks of the Father whose love shines equally on the good and the bad. He instructs us to forgive our enemies – and enemies mostly don’t even believe they’ve done wrong let alone ask for forgiveness.”

Referencing the IRA cenotaph bomb that killed 11 people in Enniskillen during the Troubles, she said that she was speaking just a few short miles from where that bomb went off and she was conscious of the powerful impact made by Gordon Wilson who so generously called for forgiveness for those who murdered his daughter in that bomb, and whose hand he held as she died. “It is so difficult to forgive those who have deeply wounded us but that’s what we’re commanded to do. The good news that I have experienced,” she said, “is that forgiveness is not something we have to do ourselves through gritted teeth. Rather it is a grace, a gratuitous gift from God.” She said that St Ignatius had good advice for people like herself who found it difficult to forgive. “Ignatius would say, well, pray for the grace to be able to forgive, and by extension, if you can’t pray for that, then pray for the grace to want to pray to be able to forgive. You can take time, for as the philosopher Heidegger defines and reminds us, humans are beings-in-time. And God is patient.”

Quoting Franciscan spiritual writer Richard Rohr, she said that the gift of forgiveness was a three-fold grace. Firstly, it brings goodness into a dark situation. Secondly it allows the forgiver to see the deep down goodness of the one they’re forgiving. And thirdly, it allows the person who forgives to experience the depths of their own goodness.

The Novena of Hope continues in the Graan until next Monday, with a variety of speakers all shining their own particular light on the nature of Christian hope.