Summer 1988, Vol.40 No. 2, pp. 157-164.

Mary Ann Fatula:
      Current Trends:
           The Ministry of Reconciliation

Sr. Mary Ann, O.P., holds a doctorate in systematic theology from the Catholic University of America and chairs the Religious Studies Department of Ohio Dominican College.

PERHAPS only those who have suffered a bitter estrangement can fully grasp the radical import of Paul's words to his loved Corinthian community that we who have been reconciled to God in Christ Jesus have been entrusted in turn with the "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor 5:18). Paul certainly reflects here on his own labor as an apostle. Yet in a profound way his words apply to every Christian: to each one of us belongs the "ministry of reconciliation." This is not an optional extra tacked on to the real stuff of our personal and professional lives. Our very baptism into Jesus' death and resurrection and into his community initiates us into a way of life that must be in itself a prophetic and radical word; we ourselves are meant to be living sacraments of forgiveness and reconciliation to one another and to the world.


News media face us every day with graphic pictures of a horror to which we could easily become numbed: in every part of our world today countries face unresolved conflicts and brutal wars that cry out for apparently impossible reconciliations. It is both a fact and paradox of life that war's own savageness eventually forces upon fighting nations the exquisite lesson that the human heart can flourish only in peace. Thus we continue to witness, as we have in the past months and years, what seem to be impossible attempts, in hopeless situations, to effect reconciliation.

The conflict in Northern Ireland, for example, seems to refuse peace, yet 1985 witnessed an Anglo-Irish accord as a small step toward reconciling Dublin and Belfast. Although apparently unresolvable war continues in Central America, in 1987 presidents of five Central American nations meeting in Guatemala City pledged themselves to a peace treaty. The peace efforts of the president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias Sanchez, won him the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize. The same year witnessed other significant reconciliation attempts with a global impact. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan president Junius R. Jayewardene pledged themselves to cooperate in bringing peace to the divided nations of Sri Lanka. United Nations talks in Geneva helped to bring a devastating war in Afghanistan closer to a peaceful resolution. And after many years of negotiation, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed at their summit meeting in Washington, D.C., a treaty limiting intermediate-range nuclear weapons.

In several reconciliation attempts within the past few years, religious leaders have played a key role. Salvadoran Archbishop Arturo Rivera Damas has mediated negotiations for the Central American Peace Plan. Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo of Managua has served as mediator between the Contras and the Nicaraguan government.

Black author James Baldwin once recalled a personal turning point that helped focus his energies on writing rather than on violence as a protest against racial injustice. When a waitress would not serve him, Baldwin became so enraged that he threw a cup of water at her. This act was minor in terms of its physical impact, certainly unable to qualify as an assault intended to kill. Immediately, terror filled Baldwin -- terror not of the waitress, nor of the police, but of himself. He ran away. "I had been ready to commit murder from the hatred I carried in my heart." Those of us who have been embittered by a hurt or betrayal know also, by experience, the meaning of Baldwin's words. The reconciliations sorely needed in our world today begin not with continents or countries at war, but with hurting human hearts.


In his introduction to Dorothy Day's selected writings, Robert Ellsburg notes that Day originally had felt called to write in order to convince readers of the world's injustice. In the end, what she wrote led countless people to reflect instead on the even more powerful and mysterious depths of love. Ellsburg locates the source of Day's extraordinary impact not in what she wrote, nor even in what she believed, but in the fact that there was absolutely no distinction between what she believed, what she wrote, and how she lived.(1) She wrote of love, and she lived love.

Day knew the world's injustice. In 1948 she confessed how hard it was for her to "keep writing in these times of tension and strife which may, at any moment, become for us all a time of terror." And yet, she continues, "What else is the world interested in? What else do we all want, each one of us, except to love and be loved .... Even the most ardent revolutionist... is trying to make a world where it is easier for people to love."(2)

Day saw the meaning of the Catholic Worker movement, whose heart and soul she was, precisely in this way. She reflects on how simple and casual its beginnings seemed to her. "We were just sitting talking when lines of people began to form, saying We need bread.' We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us."(3) Others have identified the core of the Catholic Worker Movement as poverty or social injustice, she continues, "But the final word is love. At times it has been, in the words of Father Zossima, a harsh and dreadful thing ...." Day concludes, "Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship .... We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love."(4)

For Day, these are no easy words. She tells of the unending burden of pretending that she has love in her heart for the poor and neglected who come to her. But, she writes, "I even feel with terror, 'I have no love in my heart' .... And yet I have to pretend that I have." Day after day passes this way. Then, one morning, something absolutely unexpected happens. "Strange and wonderful, the make-believe becomes true. If you will to love someone, you soon do. You will to love this cranky old man and someday you do. It depends on how hard you try."(5)


It is hard even trying to love, precisely because it is hard to forgive. "You give your cloak and your trousers and your shoes, and then when you are left naked, you are beaten and reviled besides." People who greedily take all we have to give, Day writes, "turn and rend us." Day had only one solution: "Our failure," she writes, is "not to love enough."(6)

"Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone indebted to us" (Luke 11:4). Past hurts can cut into our hearts so deeply that we begin to consider forgiving an option instead of a central demand of the Gospel upon us. To love in the way Jesus commands us to love requires of us, every day, the will to forgive. But forgiveness is such a unilateral act of largesse that it can have its ultimate source only in the heart of God. To forgive is a process that begins with God's grace and the will to let go, to live free of bitterness by making peace with another in our heart. It is, therefore, a marvelously creative act which sets both forgiver and forgiven free from a past that has imprisoned both.

This life-giving power of forgiveness stems from its nature as a whole new way to see. Not to forgive is to allow our wounds to blind us; to forgive means to see again. We behold ourselves as we really are, no longer the helpless, abused victim, but rather one who also has hurt others; one, nevertheless, who is loved infinitely, and who, in God, has the inner autonomy and capacity to love generously. To forgive is to behold those who have hurt us as they really are, not as hateful injurers, but as brothers and sisters who struggle with and suffer from their own weakness and hurts and wounds. Our very will to forgive in this way opens us both, forgiver and forgiven, to a future that is entirely new; the past is not the final word about either of us.(7)

When we forgive, we undertake a tremendously dynamic activity, full of life and power. And precisely because only the strong can give life, to forgive is no weak, passive permission for others to abuse us. It is, rather, a "powerful act of the spirit, a deep act of love," whose purpose is finally to convert us and those who have sinned against us. When we forgive in unjust situations, therefore, we must also actively forgive sinful reality. This means doing as Jesus did, denouncing evil, "giving voice to the victims' cry."(8)

Gandhi stressed that forgiving in this way "does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil doer, but ...putting one's whole soul against the will of the tyrant."(9) Love compels us to forgive and welcome those who have sinned against us and others. But forgiveness itself also means working with our whole soul to prevent those who abuse themselves or others from continuing their dehumanizing deeds.(10)


Jon Sobrino points our that, like all people of integrity, Archbishop Oscar Romero knew that every one of us, oppressor and oppressed alike, needs forgiveness and is forgiven by God. Romero's own murder sealed the word of forgiveness which he had spoken in his life: "You can say, if they come to kill me, that I forgive and bless those who do it." Romero's life was not simply about forgiveness; it was ultimately about reconciliation. Sobrino points to this cry of Romero's as the most urgent message he spoke with his life, and finally with his death: "Above all God's word... to us today is: 'Reconciliation!'"(11)

Surely Romero had seared into his heart the radical word of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. It is not only those who kill who are murderers; we who harbor anger in our hearts are also murderers. For the disciples of Jesus, the desire to be reconciled is no option; it is a command: "If you are bringing your gift to the altar and there recall that your brother or sister has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first to be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift" (Mt 5:23-24).

Though it may meet with silence or rejection, forgiveness is always directed ultimately at the miracle of reconciliation. This means the desire, at least, to overcome bitterness and estrangement, and to unite again in a different way, on a deeper level of peace and acceptance. To be reconciled, therefore, means seeking to be related in love, yet not by simply repeating the past. It means to .enter into an entirely new realm of understanding, of ourselves and of those forgiven, to see ourselves and them in a new way. By its very nature, reconciliation means committing ourselves to the hard and sometimes tortuous task of speaking and doing the truth in love.

In reflecting on his experience in El Salvador, Sobrino points out that Christian communities there are learning an important lesson in their focus on structural sin and forgiveness. The way that sin is embedded into the very structure of our society, calling for forgiveness of that same magnitude, reveals to us also our own personal and communal worlds of sin and forgiveness. We discover that we ourselves have the sinful tendencies of the very oppressors we fight. It is not surprising, Sobrino remarks, that the communities that work hardest for internal reconciliation are the ones most eager to work for social reconciliation.

The communities that prize the daily task of reconciliation among themselves are the ones that labor to open up dialogue, the ones that, in the situation of El Salvador, find the most joy in even the smallest gesture of reconciliation. Experiences like these teach us, Sobrino concludes, that without forgiveness there is no reconciliation, and without reconciliation, there can be no community, and no kingdom of God.(12)


To live our lives as a sacrament of reconciliation is, of course, beyond our own powers. We learn this hard lesson every time we long for reconciliation and meet instead what seems to be hopeless estrangement. The truth is that we ourselves shut out others, just as others shut us out. We eventually learn by our own experience that to forgive is to "uncreate; " to wipe out of existence a hurt or estrangement, and that only God "can return to nothing what has already come into existence .... It is only God who can uncreate, it is only God who can truly forgive."(13) And it is only God who can truly reconcile.

This is the mercy of our Christian community's sacramental life. In the Eucharist we can drink in the power of a love greater than our own, the power of a forgiveness that comes from being loved unto death itself and beyond. It is an especially tender mercy of God that we celebrate also a sacrament precisely of reconciliation, a human, tangible, visible, audible way for the power of Jesus' love, and of the community's love, to heal and bind up our wounds, to convert our hearts from the unrecognized sin that imprisons us, to free our souls from the burden of the past and the fear of the future. Here we seal and celebrate our life itself as a daily choice to be converted and reconciled, and to be in our own persons a means of reconciliation to others.

Perhaps it is when we ourselves feel scant reluctance to be alone in our sin, little need to be forgiven and reconciled or to experience in our lives the power to be made new, that this sacrament loses its relevance for us. Four decades ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked whether we do not deceive ourselves when we simply confess our sins to ourselves, and grant ourselves absolution. He asks if the reason for the "feebleness" of our Christian life might lie "precisely in the fact that we are living on self-forgiveness?" We certainly must forgive and be reconciled with ourselves. But of itself, "self-forgiveness can never lead to a break with sin."(14)

Finally, Jesus' healing grace is mediated to us through the community and its sacramental life in a way that effects and signifies most radically the true power of forgiveness and reconciliation to free us. Here is a power that can make our lives new, and in the process, make us living sacraments of this power to others. Anyone who has tried to forgive and to become reconciled knows that our efforts are useless unless they are upheld by the grace and mercy of God. We cannot of ourselves change or open a human heart, not even our own. But there is one who can, and who has reconciled to God not only us, but also everything in heaven and on earth, "making peace through the blood of his cross" (Col 1:20). It is in him that we can, along with our own labors, make of our

life a ministry of reconciliation by enveloping it with prayer for

ourselves, for those with whom we need and long to be reconciled, for those who war against each other in our world, in our cities, and in our homes. In this way, we can, as Dorothy Day writes, "work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world.(15)


  1. Robert Ellsburg, ed. and intro., By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), p. xv.
  2. Ellsburg, p. 213.
  3. Ibid., p. 363.
  4. Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day (New York: Harper and Row, 1952), p. 268.
  5. Day, p. 219.
  6. Ibid., p. 220.
  7. Raymond Studzinski, "Remember and Forgive: Psychological Dimensions of Forgiveness," Forgiveness, ed. C. Floristan and C. Duquoc, Concilium, vol. 184 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1986), pp. 13-20.
  8. Jon Sobrino, "Latin America: Place of Sin and Place of Forgiveness," in Floristan, Forgiveness, p. 48.
  9. M.K. Gandhi, Young India, 11-8-1920; in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: 1965), p. 133.
  10. Gandhi, p. 52.
  11. Ibid., p. 55.
  12. Ibid., p. 54.
  13. Virgil Elizondo, "I Forgive but I do not Forget," in Floristan, Forgiveness, p. 72.
  14. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (London: SCM Press, 1954), pp. 100-112, passim.
  15. Ellsburg, p. 9