Forgiveness and Absolution: "two indispensible elements" in Reconciliation

The Age this morning ran a story entitled “Pope calls for an apology”. It is true, Papa Benny pulled no punches, and these comments were central to his address to our Australian Ambassador to the Holy See:

“In regard to the Aboriginal people of your land, there is still much to be achieved. Their social situation is cause for much pain. I encourage you and the government to continue to address with compassion and determination the deep underlying causes of their plight. Commitment to truth opens the way to lasting reconciliation through the healing process of asking for forgiveness and granting forgiveness — two indispensable elements for peace. In this way our memory is purified, our hearts are made serene, and our future is filled with a well-founded hope in the peace which springs from truth.”

I have highlighted the words “asking for forgiveness and granting forgiveness”, because I think this is a slightly different thing than the usual political demand for “an apology”.

My concern with the general “Sorry” campaign is that it is completely one-sided.

When the Aggressor (all non-aboriginal Australians—that might sound a bit rich, but where do you draw the line and say “They weren’t/aren’t responsible”?) says “Sorry” to the Victim (ie. all Australians of indigenous descent who have ever or will ever live), this is one “indispensable element”. It’s not quite what the Holy Father means though, because he is not just talking about “saying sorry”, but about “asking for forgiveness”.

So, if we (I am including myself in the role of the Aggressor, since I have no indigenous blood to absolve me of this role) not only say “Sorry”, but also “ask for forgiveness”, who is going to reply with the other “indispensable element” of “granting forgiveness”? Who has the authority to say: “I absolve you” in the name of every indigenous Australian who has ever lived, or who will ever live?

Without the second “indispensable element” of absolution, we could go on with annual “Sorry Days”, beating our breasts, paying out continual and continuous compensation to each successive generation of Victims. The result: No closure. No healing of wounds, no peace.

Surely this is not what Pope Benedict means? Asking for forgiveness and granting it are the “two indispensable elements for peace”. Peace will not result if one is given and not the other. Unless there can be a formal absolution, a formal apology will serve no healing purpose.

We can’t change the past. We might even have to face the fact that apologies and absolutions for the past are not possible. But we can change the future. We can speak the truth about both the past and the present, and act with compassion and determination to address “the deep underlying causes” of the plight of our indigenous peoples. Somewhere along this road of reconciliation we might just find that forgiveness has been tacitly asked and granted.

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