Forgiveness and Restoration of Dignity

I’ve talked a lot about forgiveness over the last year, both in retreat talks and in blog posts. But the conjoining of two things prompt me to say a few more words on the subject.

My friend Jeanne Bishop recently sat down face to face with David Biro, the man who murdered her sister, her sister’s unborn child and her sister’s husband twenty-three years ago. (At the time, Biro was a juvenile.) In a recent post, Jeanne shared what led to that meeting.

Jeanne had waited years for Biro to admit his guilt and apologize, something he would never do. She writes that it finally struck her that “I had spoken publicly about forgiving him, but I never told him. I never communicated that forgiveness directly to him.” She wrote to him to say she was sorry for that, telling him she had forgiven him. Her apology resulted in him writing her a fifteen page handwritten letter in which he confessed to the murders and apologized for committing them.

As I reread Jeanne’s powerful post, I recalled something Fr. Damien Halligan said in his sermon on the Prodigal Son parable at Mass at St. Ignatius Retreat House this past Sunday. Damien talked about the father’s response when the profligate younger son comes home. Rather than accepting the son’s offer to be as one of his father’s servants, the father calls for a robe to be put on his son’s shoulders, a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. In Damien’s words, the father “restored dignity to the son.” Of all of the words in his sermon, it was those that stayed with me – the father restored dignity to the son.

Often we forgive grudgingly or partially. We mouth words of forgiveness, but still in little ways, withhold something.

In a sense what Jeanne did in writing to Biro was the equivalent of what that father did in the parable of the Prodigal Son: in telling him she forgave him, in apologizing to him for failing to do so before, she restored dignity to David Biro. I suspect (actually I’m fairly confident) that without that restoration of dignity, he would not have been able to confess his guilt and apologize for the wrong he had committed.

Jeanne forgave as God forgives. And her act became gift to her – giving her the confession and apology she longed for. But it was also enormous gift to David Biro, a restoration of dignity that allows for the possibility of real growth on his part.

I am grateful for the model of forgiveness Jeanne has given for me and for all of us.