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The Peace of Loving Forgiveness

By Rev. Robert T. Kennedy '50

The following homily was preached at the Golden Jubilee Mass of the Class of 1950, reunion weekend, June 11, 2000.

One hundred and thirty-five years ago, when this College was in its early twenties, the war between the Northern and Southern States ended. Soldiers of the Southern armies began their sad journey homeward, their spirits broken, their hopes crushed, their cause lost. The proud strains of their anthem "Dixie" would not be heard again. They waited in fear to learn what spoils the victor would demand. 

In Washington, huge crowds gathered outside the White House serenaded by the United States Marine Band as they cheered the Northern victory. President Lincoln was there, acknowledging the cheers. After a while, the leader of the Marine Band approached the President to ask if there was any particular song the president would like played. After a lengthy pause, Lincoln said, "Ask the band to play 'Dixie.'"

When the music began, a startled hush came over the crowd. Some began to laugh thinking the President was mocking the defeated South. But his sad, solemn expression quickly told them his intention was not to mock but to honor those who had fought valiantly and lost. Many, indignant, walked away. But Lincoln had told the nation in his second inaugural address that ending the war and binding up the nation's wounds would be pursued "with malice toward none, with charity for all," and, in the midst of the victory celebration, he was telling the nation that he meant it. Abraham Lincoln had received the gift of living the heart of Christianity: "Love one another as I have loved you."

Three hundred years earlier, Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, was convicted of treason for not acknowledging his King to be head of the Church in England. Before the sentence of death was pronounced, More was asked if he had anything further to say, and he replied, "More have I not to say, my lords, but that as Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present at and consented to the death of Stephen, and held the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen to death, and yet be they now both holy saints in heaven and shall continue there friends forever, so I trust and shall fervently pray that, though your lordships have now here on earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet one day meet again in heaven and enjoy there together everlasting happiness. More, like Lincoln, had learned to love as Jesus loved: "Father, forgive them; they know not what they do." Lincoln taught us how to transform winning into loving; More taught us how to transform losing into loving. 

Fifty years ago, when younger minds and hearts than have gathered here this morning were together on this Hill, we knew something about winning and losing, and we had begun to learn how insignificant winning and losing is when compared to loving one another. Etched in our memory, in that regard, is a Sunday evening in the spring of 1950 when the nation's #1 ranked college basketball team returned to this campus after its first loss, following 26 consecutive victories, then a national record. It was late in the evening, closing in on midnight as I recall, when the cars bearing the members of the team made their way up College Street expecting to enter a silent, sad campus. But as the cars turned into Linden Lane, they found waiting at the gate the Holy Cross band to lead them up Linden Lane through a crush of two thousand young men cheering their lungs out for a team that had lost a game and nothing more. The songs and the cheers were to tell Oftring and Cousy, McMullan and Laska, Formon and O'Shea-and the underclassmen on the team-that, winning or losing, they were ours; we were theirs; together we were us, and we always would be. And in memorable words from the steps of O'Kane, Bob Cousy told us they felt exactly the same. 

We celebrate today a Mass of thanksgiving for God's countless gifts to us, especially for the friendships, the learning, the enhancement of our lives that came to us through Holy Cross. We do so on a day when the whole Church gives thanks for the gift of God's own Self, the Holy Spirit, first given to us at Baptism, again at Confirmation, and offered to us every day of our lives, simply for the asking, to enlighten us, energize us, strengthen us to live as Jesus lived and to love as He loved.

In the familiar passage from the Acts of the Apostles read as our first reading, St. Luke depicts a grand outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the imagery of fire to symbolize the light and truth and the warmth of love, in the imagery of a roaring wind to symbolize missionary energy, zeal, and strength, and in the imagery of speech in multiple languages to symbolize the universality of our mission to share the life of Christ with people in every culture, in every circumstance, and at every age-from the youngest great-grandchild to the youngest grandchild, to adolescents, to grown-up daughters and sons, to young and not-so-young adults, each age group of which speaks a language all its own and so needs to be spoken to about God in words it can understand. 

In the letter to the Corinthians, from which our second reading was taken, St. Paul expands on Luke's teaching about the Holy Spirit by drawing attention to the unifying action of the Spirit in bringing into a great oneness the diversely gifted members of the Body of Christ, an action of the Spirit known well to the members of the Class of 1950 who came here as a mob of disparate individuals, more sharply divided by age, experience and levels of maturity than any class before or since, but who left here as solidly united an "us" as this campus has ever seen. 

In the Gospel passage today, the apostle John recounts an earlier, quieter giving of the Holy Spirit than that depicted by Luke and Paul. No driving wind, no fire, no speaking in varied tongues. It was evening on the first day of the week after the crucifixion of Jesus. The disciples were huddled behind locked doors. They knew one of their number had betrayed Jesus; another, Peter, who was there with them, the rock upon which Jesus had said He would build His Church, had denied he even knew Jesus; and all of them had fled from Jesus in Gethsemane, leaving Him to face His enemies alone. Mary Magdelene and other women had brought word that Jesus had risen from the dead and had asked the women to tell the apostles to meet Him in Galilee. But the apostles had made no move to set out for Galilee, partly because they didn't believe the women and partly because they were afraid of what He might say to them if, in fact, He were alive.

Into such a scene, John tells us, Jesus came and stood before them. They were not where He had asked them to be, as we often are not where we are supposed to be; so He came to them where they were, as He so often has come to us. Filled with guilt, shame and fear, they waited for His first words. John has recorded them. "Peace be with you," He said. No word of blame; He understood. No demand that they beg forgiveness, for each of them was His Father's masterpiece-an image of God; He would never demean them by making them beg. He showed them His wounds, partly to assure them it was truly He, and partly to fix indelibly in their minds the depth of His love for them and the price He had to pay to save them from themselves. He said for a second time, "Peace be with you," words that say more profoundly than any other words: "You have nothing to fear; I love you." Then He breathed on them (reminiscent of the first creation when, according to the Book of Genesis, God breathed life into the clay that was to become the first human beings) and, as Jesus breathed on them, He began the new creation and said, "Receive the Spirit. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Go-and forgive." Christ's words about forgiveness are understood by the Church to be the foundation of the Sacrament of Penance, but the implication of the words is understood to go far beyond sacramental forgiveness. 

The apostle John's account of the giving of the Holy Spirit focuses solely on forgiveness. It is a perspective unique to John, perhaps because John was the only apostle who was at the Cross. Like the others, John had fled from Jesus in Gethsemane; but, unlike the others, John eventually made his way to Calvary where he was close enough to the excruciating agony of the crucifixion to hear those searing words: "Father, forgive them." John learned at the Cross, and again in the locked room on the evening of the first day of the week, the depth of the challenge Jesus left us in commanding us to "love one another as I have loved you." To love as Jesus loved is to forgive-enemies, friends, family, everyone-quickly, totally, for good. 

Christianity is a religion of forgiveness, a life of loving forgiveness given and received, without limitation. It is a life that, without divine assistance, no mere human can live. But it is precisely through the gift we celebrate this day, God's gift to us of the Holy Spirit, that we are empowered to forgive as Jesus forgave. That is the teaching of the apostle John who, like us, went to the Cross. To love one another as Jesus loved is to forgive. Abraham Lincoln knew that; so did Thomas More; so must every Christian, especially those who bear the honored name of the Holy Cross. 

It was evening on that first day of the week when Jesus brought to His disciples the peace of loving forgiveness, breathed new life into them, and sent them, empowered by His Spirit, to bring the peace of forgiveness to a world that prefers vengeance. It is now the evening of our lives, and once more we are about to leave the Cross-please God, not for the last time, but the number of our returns and our leavings is fast dwindling. On this great feast, newly empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us leave the Cross as the apostle John left the Cross, totally committed to loving forgiveness; seeking it where there is still forgiveness for us to seek; granting it where there is still forgiveness for us to grant. 

May the evening of our lives not come to a close while any sons or daughters are unforgiven for not fulfilling our dreams for them but choosing instead to fulfill their own; or while any professional or business competitors of ours remain unforgiven for smearing our reputation, injuring our good name, in order to advance their own ambition. May the evening of our lives not come to a close while any of those we trusted remain unforgiven for betraying our trust, or any of those we counted as friends remain unforgiven for letting us down in times of need. May the evening not end for us with those we looked to for leadership unforgiven for failing us, or those we expected to follow us unforgiven for rebelling; or those who judged us wrongly, or slighted us, or hurt us in any of a thousand different ways. Let not the evening of our lives end with anyone unforgiven-not even God. 

Our forgiving God may sound strange, but in order to complete our mission of forgiveness we may need to ask ourselves if we have yet fully forgiven God for taking a loved one from us too soon; or for asking a loved one of ours to suffer physical or mental anguish or both; or for taking us, who claim to be of the Cross, at our word and sending us heartbreaks, setbacks, hardships, illnesses, sufferings as graced opportunities to take up the Cross, follow Christ and help save His Father's world. Let the evening of our lives not end before we have truly forgiven even God, who taught us how to forgive by forgiving us so often. 

Today is the first day of the week. For us, it is the evening-the evening of our lives. And we are about to leave the Cross. Before we leave, may we truly listen and thrill to hear again words first spoken long ago but spoken on this day to us: "Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father sent Me, so I send you." And may we thrill to hear Him continue: "Go spend the evening of your lives bringing the peace of loving forgiveness to your varied worlds. And know, as you do so, that in My Sacred Heart thy honored names shall never die."


See the home page of this issue for a feature on Rev. Robert T. Kennedy '50.

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