On May 13, 1981, a Turkish mercenary named Mehmet Ali Ağca shot Pope John Paul II at close range in St. Peter’s Square. The pope, who later recovered from his wounds, eventually met his would-be killer in prison. There he spoke with Ali Ağca and forgave him. The pope’s forgiveness, while saintly, is not the most stunning part of the story. What’s remarkable is that the pope did not pardon him. Not after one year, five years, ten years or even twenty. Certainly he had the influence to deliver a pardon, but he didn’t. 

We don’t know why the pope didn’t intervene, but his actions indicate that he believed forgiveness and pardon are different. The difference, according to St. John Henry Newman, can be seen in how God perfectly administers mercy and justice. In his sermon, “Chastisement amid Mercy,” Newman explains that, while God’s forgiveness separates us from our sin, it does not remove its painful effects, including the debt it accrues. 

Scripture and tradition so clearly acknowledge the forgiveness God offers sinners that it’s sufficient to mention just two lines:

  • “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” – 1 John 1:9
  • “The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church

To restore us to union with Him: This is why our Lord went to the cross. This is why the symbol of our faith is the crucifix. In sign language, the sign for “Jesus” requires touching the tip of the middle finger of your hand into the center of the palm of your other hand (indicating the nails He received in His hands on the cross). Who is Jesus? The One who forgave with His sacrifice on the cross.

Yet sin leaves a mark like a bruised ankle after a bad fall. No one expects the bruise or the pain to go away instantly, despite knowing that the ankle will heal. In the spiritual realm, many of us expect the medicine to work differently. We expect to fall and bruise, no doubt, but after forgiveness we anticipate full and immediate recovery as if nothing had happened, as if the fall was just a bad dream. Newman says it like this: “Now a person who so feels [that his past sin can be easily dismissed], clearly does not understand that sin leaves a burden upon the soul, which has to be got rid of. He thinks it is done and over,—the question of guilt, pollution, punishment not occurring to him. Nothing surely is more common among persons of the most various characters of mind than thus to think that God forgets sin as soon as we forget it.”

Famed novelist William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Yet many of us, Newman says, think the passing of time and changing conditions are equivalent to repentance. “Yet the fact is, as I would maintain, that men in general do not take the trouble to ask, or, in other words, to repent; but they think the change [in behavior], or apparent change or improvement itself stands instead of repentance, as a sort of means, a sacramental means, imparting forgiveness by itself, by its own virtue, as a work done;”

True repentance requires contrition: regret and sadness over one’s sins and a commitment not to commit them again. From that starting point, change and improvement follow. This process is the same as preached by Jesus and His forerunner, St. John the Baptist, when they urged their hearers to repent and then be baptized. The one who repents, while turning from his sin and toward obedience, also understands the damage he has done. He does not look at his past sin as forgotten, but as a thorn that remains with him, the memory of which pricks with every recall.

One who repents acknowledges the debt accrued by sin, even while accepting God’s forgiveness. The greatest of saints exhibited repentance and at the same time suffered from their sin, despite being welcomed back into relationship with God: “Moses was excluded from the promised land for speaking unadvisedly with his lips. Was he therefore blotted out of God’s book?” Was he not in a justified state, though under punishment? and does not that great Saint show us how to meet the prospect of God’s judgments, when he earnestly supplicates God to pardon him what seemed so small a sin, and to let him go over to Jordan?”

We don’t know what lingering effects our past sin has on us and others. Newman speculates: “It is still a question whether a debt is not standing against them for their past sins, and is not now operating or to operate to their disadvantage. What its payment consists in, and how it will be exacted, is quite another question, and a hidden one. It may be such, if they die under it, as to diminish their blessedness in heaven; or it may be a sort of obstacle here to their rising to certain high points of Christian character; or it may be a hindrance to their ever attaining one or other particular Christian grace in perfection,—faith, purity, or humility; or it may prevent religion taking deep root within them and imbuing their minds; or it may make them more liable to fall away; or it may hold them back from that point of attainment which is the fulfilment of their trial…”

We don’t need to dwell on the past, but the memory of our sin should be an occasion for sincerity, sobriety and sorrow. Knowing that our sin is forgiven should give us peace, but knowing the harm we’ve done should give us even greater resolve to change and atone for past sins. 

On January 8, 2010, after nearly three decades in prison, Ali Ağca had plenty of time to think about what he had done and what he would do now that he was released. In 2014, he visited the tomb of St. John Paul II to lay flowers in his memory. May we all be able to lay to rest the past by never failing to learn from it.

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