Forgive and Remember

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 11:42am on 1st June 2013

Before celebrating the sacred mysteries, we seek forgiveness, sharing the reality of lives lived as sinners called to be saints – forgiven but not forgetting, since liturgy calls for both repentance and remembrance.  As Timothy Radcliffe writes:


Forgiveness is not the scrubbing out of our sins, pretending that they never happened.   Forgiveness is a blessing through which even our failures are taken up into God’s grace and become part of our way to God.

p.128 Take the Plunge: Living Baptism and Confirmation


This is comforting for anyone conscious of personal weakness and when faced with disgraceful episodes in the history of the Church and in the Bible.  The Easter Vigil includes a vengeful canticle (Exodus 15:1-6, 17 – 18) revelling in destruction and drowning with gratitude to God.  Increasingly, this text strikes me as heartless but I was reassured somewhat by Christopher Willcock SJ discussing the troubling conclusion of Psalm 137 as part of the Kevin Donovan SJ Memorial Lecture at Heythrop College last November.  He said:


I can’t fault the human logic in the desire for revenge, just the image of God it portrays.  By this stage in the Psalm the people have forgotten the reality of God hence this reaction.  That’s why we must be people of anamnesis not amnesia.  Memory sometimes results in guilt but by facing the reality gratitude and grief may be aligned leading to wholeness.  Liturgy and music expresses, contains and enables this. 


Thus Willcock challenges all liturgical ministers - does liturgy (and its music) really express, contain and enable forgiving and remembering?


Music serves the liturgy as a vehicle for emotional expression and through its significance aiding memory.  It’s easier to remember a text set to music, even more so if it has a predictable rhythm and rhyme.  Once it’s memorised it is said to be learnt by heart.  As liturgical experiences are repeated and remembered, they take root in the hearts of all who participate. 


In liturgies commemorating tragedy, including those around Remembrance Day and following social trauma, remembering mitigates against retaliation, bringing divine forgiveness into what may seem an unforgiveable situation.  The specific Mass texts seeking forgiveness – Penitential Act and Agnus Dei - recognise the effect of sin on each person and on the world, dividing and scattering and provoking the need to be put back together, re-membered by God in reconciliation.  As part of the Jubilee Year 2000 Pope John Paul II made a public ‘purification of memory’, supported by a report by the International Theological Commission into "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past" presided over by Cardinal Ratzinger


This document describes a ‘fruitful osmosis’ in which


The past is grasped in the potentialities which it discloses, in the stimulus it offers to modify the present. Memory becomes capable of giving rise to a new future. (4.1)


Forgiving without forgetting resists any temptation to sentimentalise or crystallise the past.  Rose-tinted glasses must be removed in order to perceive any need for forgiveness.  The limitations of a single memory are highlighted by contrast with God’s perspective, which simultaneously offers hope for the evolution of memory informed by a new understanding. 


Within the mystagogical period, new Catholics basking in the glow of recently received sacramental forgiveness come to appreciate their identity as members of Christ’s body – re-membered in name and nature.  It is Biblical truth that every part of this body is valuable and this is an image I return to when evaluating liturgy.  Mistakes may have been made, but there will also have been moments of marvel and wonder.  So it is good to review each liturgy to absorb more deeply its fruits, but not to deny its failures.  The latter can be addressed with care and attention, to ensure in future these are given special honour and dignity and so become more presentable (1 Cor 12:23-24).   The same approach evaluates gently the conduct of liturgical ministers.  Embarrassment arises when mistakes are recognised, but if fear of this causes us to avoid reflection completely, we miss out on celebrating praise rightfully received for playing our given part building up the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:26). 


Some memories serve to remind us of how things should not be done.  Many people have been formed into bad liturgical practice simply by experiencing this repeatedly.  Unlearning memories of liturgy is very difficult.  We have to school children in the appropriate practice of their faith in order to make memories which will nourish them into the future.  This includes a positive experience of liturgical reconciliation.  I have encountered an attitude of anxiety among teachers and parents whose own experiences of going to confession were weighed down with guilt, unfair criticism, harsh judgement unmitigated by absolution.  Such anxiety can easily become a barrier to experiencing the relief of forgiveness.  Sin still occurs, even when it is not named as such, even when it is forgotten.  Remembering it brings it to light and in the words of the hymn:


                Let in the light; all sin expose to Christ, whose life no darkness knows.

                Before his cross for guidance kneel; his light will judge, and judging heal.

                From Awake, awake by J. R. Peacey based on Ephesians 5:6-20


Reproduced from Issue 348, Volume 39, Number 1 of Music and Liturgy, May 2013, by kind permission of the Society of Saint Gregory

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