When you read in the newspapers or on line about someone being accused or convicted of a heinous offense, it is assumed that their life is over and that disgrace is their lot forever and ever. In this world view, a person is condemned, and redemption (a new life) is impossible. It is all over.
I remember a remark made by Fr. Cantalamesa who is the spiritual director of the Papal Curia. In commenting about the constant stream of scandals coming into the media from the United States, he said, “America: where everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven!” This is a great insight because the very nature of forgiveness is that you go on as before; hence the word: for (as before) give (give as things use to be). How is that even possible in a world where your sin is always remembered and the door is always closed?
This is exacerbated acutely by the world of the internet where things really stand forever. You put one thought online and you may regret it forever!
The way of the world is a closed system. Disgrace and defeat are not only the virtual end of things, but also the real end. Someone who has been tried in the pages of the media or in the labyrinth of the internet will forever bear the weight of their conviction. They will be forever guilty, even if they are found subsequently to be innocent. The cloud initiated by the aspersion cast on them will forever mar the sunlight in their lives. Such is the power of slander and detraction. Whether the thing is true or false, the results are the same. Today we also have Google to help cement this permanent opprobrium!
There is a story of a man who spread rumors and gossip falsely about his friend. He went to Confession and his confessor, after hearing the sin, gave him a strange penance: go to the roof of your house with a feather filled pillow, split it open, and cast the feathers into the wind; then come back to me. He did this and, when he returned, his confessor told him to go and to put back the feathers into the pillow. When the penitent said this was impossible, the confessor revealed to him the point of this penance: to show him the utter and lasting destructiveness of passing on an evil report about someone, whether it is true (the sin of detraction) or false (the sin of slander).
In Christianity, everyone has a second chance and a third and a fourth. By its very nature, it is not a closed system. The story is not finished until we take our last breath. Then it is that our choice for or against God becomes definitive and cannot be changed or altered. Christ made that clear in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. There is a great abyss in the next life that prevents one from going from one side to the other: hell to heaven or heaven to hell.
But in this life, it is always open for redemption. To illustrate, let us take the famous example of Adolf Hitler. At the end, was there any possibility of his conversion to God? Sometimes our sin is so hardened that it becomes almost impossible to change. That may well have been his end: pride and arrogance to the end. But what if he had a change of heart at the very end and asked for God’s mercy? Would God have refused him?
There is a passage in Dostoyevsky where someone lives a terrible life, but gives an onion to a poor widow. Once he dies and is falling into hell, the widow appears with a giant onion that he is able to grasp, enabling her to pull him up to the safety of heaven. Primo Levi, the Italian Jew and a survivor of Auschwitz, called that story and its message ‘obscene’. It makes of God someone unjust. Would Hitler be forgiven for all the evil he committed simply because of one good action? We have to say that it all depends on the inner conversion of the individual. Did the man with the onion truly repent of the evils he committed or was his salvation automatic due to this one action? What is the probability of Hitler’s conversion given all his actions? Our words and actions predispose us to our final choices. Even if Hitler did repent truly of the evil he unleashed, what long and terrible reparation awaits him for the evils he was responsible for? God is merciful, but he is also just. Reparation is the task of healing that must be part of God’s plan and it is not easy; but it is necessary. If we truly repent, we will want to work to repair (reparation) the harm that we have done. This does restore us to God, but it is not a cheap grace.
Yet in the end, while on this side of our earthly life, God stands waiting for our change of heart.