example of the good people of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina does make an impression. Their act of forgiveness is being hailed as a demonstration of Christian virtue, a living out of their faith. But glib praise for their actions is just talk if there's no understanding of the nature of forgiveness. It's as easy to say I'm sorry and not mean it as it is to say I forgive you and not mean it.
Fr. Koterski, Jesuit priest and professor at Fordham University extemporized on the subject of forgiveness one evening several years ago at a lecture he was giving on another topic. Fr. Koterski cautioned first off about forgiveness being offered prematurely.
Forgiveness is not a matter of excusing or dismissing a wrong and one shouldn't feel an obligation to forgive if there's no forgiveness in one's heart. Forgiveness comes from assessing and working through the wrong that was suffered, resulting finally in an interior transformation in the heart of the wronged party. There is relationship to Fr. Koterski's explanation of forgiveness. The wronged party needs to make a good faith attempt to repair the damage that was done even if it was the fault of the other party. The wronged party will seek to elicit 'something better' from the offender, appeal to the good in his soul. The offender, too, should show a willingness to repair the relationship lest the wronged party simply be manipulated by an empty apology.
To date, Dylan Roof has shown no remorse. While the victims' relatives may be fulfilling their half of the forgiveness relationship, without the murderer's contrition, their forgiveness may be incomplete if not simply, well, not forgiveness.
Another caution in the Church's teaching of forgiveness, explained here, is not to confuse forgiveness with loving one's enemy. The former relies on relationship. The latter relies on our individual ability to see the face of Christ in those who harm us.
St. Maria Goretti, the 12 year old girl who was repeatedly stabbed by her attacker, Alessandro Serenelli, with whom she did have a relationship, uttered her forgiveness before her death saying, "Through love of Jesus, I forgive him with all my heart." Alessandro is said to have replied that that was impossible. Some six years into his prison sentence, however, Alessandro came up with his half of the bargain. He repented, asked forgiveness of Maria's mother and spent the rest of his life in a Capuchin monastery. He also testified at the beatification hearings for Maria's cause for sainthood.
Those relatives of the victims in South Carolina may well be saints or saints in the making. St. Maria Goretti aside, however, their expressions of forgiveness less than a week after the murders seem premature. Rather, I think what they're giving voice to is their Christian duty to love their enemy, to turn the other cheek. Maybe that's the first step in forgiveness. Their message to the murderer is admirable and is certainly a worthy public expression of their private faith. Perhaps Dylan Roof, like Alessandro Serenelli, will one day say I'm sorry and mean it making forgiveness in this callous crime complete.