Mgr Francesco Follo, 17 Déc. 2018 © Mgr Francesco Follo

Archbishop Follo: When We Forgive, We Imitate God

‘Who manifests his omnipotence in the highest way with forgiveness and compassion’

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Roman Rite

XXIV Sunday of Ordinary Time – September 13, 2020

Sir 27: 33-28, 9; Ps 103; Rm 14, 7-9; Mt 18: 21-35


Ambrosian Rite

Is 11, 10-16; Ps 132; 1 Tm 1, 12-17; Lk 9: 18-22?

Third Sunday after the Martyrdom of St. John the Precursor.


  • Forgiveness without limits to give life.

 When I forgive a miracle happens: evil becomes good, because I am asked to love more and I accept the challenge. Thus, evil has become the cause of greater love. In forgiveness each one does with the other what Christ continually does with him, and that he teaches by affirming the need for forgiveness without limits.

In fact, this Sunday’s Gospel tells of the time when Peter asked Christ how many times he should forgive his neighbor. The Messiah, the bearer of the Gospel of Mercy, answered that he ought to forgive “not seven times, but seventy times seven” (Mt 18, 21s), namely, always. In fact, the number “seventy” times “seven” is a symbolic number which, more than a determinate quantity, means an infinite, immeasurable, and exagerated amount.

Saying that we must forgive “seventy times seven”, Jesus teaches that Christian forgiveness is unlimited and only a limitless forgiveness resembles God’s mercy. Divine forgiveness is the reason and the measure of fraternal forgiveness. Because God the Father has already made us the subjects of an immeasurable mercy, we must forgive without measure. Fraternal forgiveness is the consequence of God’s paternal forgiveness to be invoked on those who offend us. We must pray “Our Father who art in heaven … forgive us trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us ” for those who are guilty towards us (= “to our debtors”) and make ours the prayer of Christ on the Cross when, turning to the Father, he begged “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do “(Lk 23:34).

“Forgive” is the word spoken by Christ to whom evil was done in an unjust and unmanageable way. The dying Messiah forgives and opens the space of infinite love to the men that are offending and killing him. He pronounces this word of the heart that reveals an infinitely good God: the God of forgiveness and of mercy.

How can we, poor and limited beings, put this unlimited love into practice?

First, begging God’s mercy because we cannot give what we do not have. The Master of whom Christ speaks in today’s parable is moved by the servant’s plea and condones all his debts revealing a love not just patient but boundless in mercy. The mistake to avoid, after receiving this forgiveness, is to not recognize that in it there is his love for us and that this love grows in us if we share it.

Secondly, realizing that the reception of God’s forgiveness is concretized when we forgive others and that, forgiving those who have offended us, we love the neighbor as ourselves and achieve not only his but also our good and our happiness.

Third, realizing that forgiveness is not just an act we are called to do infinite times, but it is a way of being that must involve our daily life throughout our entire life. It is a “religious” dimension in the full sense of the term because it expresses our communion with God, whose love transforms: “Forgiving is not ignoring but transforming: that is, God must enter this world and oppose to the ocean of injustice a greater ocean of good and love.” (Benedict XVI, July 24, 2005)

A high, but human example of this forgiveness comes from Our Lady, often invoked as the Mother of Mercy. At the feet of his crucified Son, Mary forgave us accepting as her children the men for whom Christ had been crucified and died. With this yes (fiat) she became forever, without limit, our Mother, Mother of Forgiveness, in the same way as, a few decades before, she had become fully available to God and the mother of Jesus, the human Face of Divine Mercy. Mary has become and remains forever the Mother of Mercy, “model and example of forgiveness”.

2) Forgiveness and gratuity

 Today’s parable gives us another lesson about forgiveness which does not “only” have to be forever but also free, and must not separate our relationship with God from the one with our neighbor. In fact, the servant of the parable is condemned because he keeps his master’s forgiveness for himself and does not allow it to become joy and forgiveness also for others. This servant’s mistake is to separate his relationship with God from his relationship with his neighbor. It is a unique relationship. In the same way as between God and man there is a relationship of gratuity and welcoming love, so it must be between a man and his brothers.

I think that the parable wants to emphasize that God’s love is not primarily circular and mutual, but expansive and self-giving. It is in the line of gratuity, not of close reciprocity. God doesn’t not let himself to be limited to a close reciprocity. Those who believe in God and speak of God, must widen the space of forgiveness that realizes true justice.

The important thing is to understand and to live the fact that “God’s justice is his mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus, 20). Pope Francis writes “Mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe.”(Id 21). We must be an outgoing Church looking at the others with the eyes of Jesus: eyes of love and not of exclusion, certain that God is entirely and only Love. Because of being Love, he is openness, welcome, and dialogue that, in the relationship with us sinners, becomes compassion, grace, and forgiveness: mercy.

The consecrated Virgins are specifically called to be witnesses of this Lord’s mercy in which we are all saved.

The existence of these women keeps the experience of God’s forgiveness alive because they live aware of being saved and to be great only when they acknowledge to be little, renewed and wrapped in God’s holiness when they recognize their own sin.

Therefore, consecrated life remains a privileged school of “compunction of the heart” and of the humble recognition of one’s own misery, but it is also a school of trust in God’s mercy and in his love that never abandons. In fact, the closer we are to God, the more we are useful to others.

With the total gift of self, the consecrated virgins experience grace, mercy and the forgiveness of God not only for themselves, but also for their brothers and sisters because their vocation is to bring, in their hearts and in prayers, the anguish and the expectations of all, especially of those who are far from God.

Virginity is the fruit of a long-standing friendship with Jesus matured in constant listening of his Word, in the dialogue of prayer, and in the Eucharistic encounter. That is why for the consecrated virgins to be believable witnesses of faith, they must be persons who live for Christ, with Christ and in  Christ transforming their lives according to the highest demands of gratuity.

Gratuity is one of the fulcrums of the gospel. Everything is Grace. “Nobody” can claim anything, but everything flows because everything is donated. As Paul would say “What do you ever possess that you did not received? But if you have received it, why are you boasting as you did not receive it? “(1 Cor 4: 7), gratuity is not doing things without motive, but to do them with the maximum of reasons. It is “faith working through love”. (Gal 5: 6)


Patristic reading

Saint John Chrysostom (344/354 – 407)

Homily LXI. Matthew Chapter 18.

“Then came Peter to Him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times. but, Until seventy times seven.” Peter supposed he was saying something great, wherefore also as aiming at greatness he added, “Until seven times?” For this thing, saith he, which Thou hast commanded to do, how often shall I do? For if he forever sins, but forever when reproved repents, how often dost thou command us to bear with this man? For with regard to that other who repents not, neither acknowledges his own faults, Thou hast set a limit, by saying, “Let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican;” but to this no longer so, but Thou hast commanded to accept him. How often then ought I to bear with him, being told his faults, and repenting? Is it enough for seven times? What then saith Christ, the good God, who is loving towards man? “I say not unto thee, until seven times, but, until seventy times seven,” not setting a number here, but what is infinite and perpetual and forever. For even as ten thousand times signifies often, so here too. For by saying, “The barren hath borne seven,” 1S 2,5 the Scripture means many. So that He hath not limited the forgiveness by a number, but hath declared that it is to be perpetual and forever. This at least He indicated by the parable that is put after. For that He might not seem to any to enjoin great things and hard to bear, by saying, “Seventy times seven,” He added this parable, at once both leading them on to what He had said, and putting down him who was priding himself upon this, and showing the act was not grievous, but rather very easy. Therefore let me add, He brought forward His own love to man, that by the comparison, as He saith, thou mightest learn, that though thou forgive seventy times seven, though thou continually pardon thy neighbor for absolutely all his sins, as a drop of water to an endless sea, so much, or rather much more, doth thy love to man come short in comparison of the boundless goodness of God, of which thou standest in need, for that thou art to be judged, and to give an account. Wherefore also He went on to say, “The Kingdom of Heaven is likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.3 And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay,4 he commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and his children, and all that he had.”5  Then after this man had enjoyed the benefit of mercy, he went out, and “took by the throat his fellow-servant, which owed him an hundred pence;” Mt 18,28 and having by these doings l moved his lord, he caused him to cast him again into prison, until he should pay off the whole. Seest thou how great the difference between sins against man and against God? As great as between ten thousand talents, and a hundred pence, or rather even much more. And this arises both from the difference of the persons, and the constant succession of our sins. For when a man looks at us, we stand off and shrink from sinning: but when God sees us every day, we do not forbear, but do and speak all things without fear. But not hereby alone, but also from the benefit and from the honor of which we have partaken, our sins become more grievous. And if ye are desirous to learn how our sins against Him are ten thousand talents. or rather even much more, I will try to show it briefly. But I fear test to them that are inclined to wickedness, and love continually to sin, I should furnish still greater security, or should drive the meeker sort to despair, and they should repeat that saying of the disciples, “who can be saved?” Mt 19,25. [Comp. Mc 10,26.] Nevertheless for all that I will speak, that I may make those that attend more safe, and more meek. For they that are incurably diseased, and past feeling, even without these words of mine, do not depart from their own carelessness, and wickedness; and if even from hence they derive greater occasion for contempt, the fault is not in what is said, but in their insensibility; since what is said surely is enough both to restrain those that attend to it, and to prick their hearts; and the meeker sort, when they see on the one hand the greatness of their sins, and learn also on the other hand the power of repentance, will cleave to it the more, wherefore it is needful to speak. I will speak then, and will set forth our sins, both wherein we offend against God, and wherein against men, and I will set forth not each person’s own, but what are common; but his own let each one join to them after that from his conscience. And I will do this, having first set forth the good deeds of God to us. What then are His good deeds? He created us when we were not, and made all things for our sakes that are seen, Heaven, sea, air, all that in them is, living creatures, plants, seeds; for we must needs speak briefly for the boundless ocean of the works. Into us alone of all that are on earth He breathed a living soul such as we have, He planted a garden, He gave a help-meet, He set us over all the brutes, He crowned us with glory and honor. After that, when man had been unthankful towards his benefactor, He vouchsafed unto him a greater gift. 2. For look not to this only, that He cast him out of paradise, but mark also the gain that arose from thence. For after having cast him out of paradise, and having wrought those countless good works, and having accomplished His various dispensations, He sent even His own Son for the sake of them that had been benefited by Him and were hating Him, and opened Heaven to us, and unfolded paradise itself, and made us sons, the enemies, the unthankful. Wherefore it were even seasonable now to say, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” Rm 11,33 And He gave us also a baptism of the remission of sins, and a deliverance from vengeance, and an inheritance of a kingdom, and He promised numberless good things on our doing what is right, and stretched forth His hand, and shed abroad His Spirit into our hearts. What then? After so many and such great blessings, what ought to be our disposition; should we indeed, even if each day we died for Him who so loves us, make due recompense, or rather should we repay the smallest portion of the debt? By no means, for moreover even this again is turned to our advantage. How then are we disposed, whose disposition ought to be like this? Each day we insult His law. But be ye not angry, if I let loose my tongue against them that sin, for not you only will I accuse, but myself also. Where then would ye that I should begin? With the slaves, or with the free? with them that serve in the army, or with private persons? with the rulers, or with the subjects? with the women, or with the men? with the aged men, or with the young? with what age? with what race? with what rank? with what pursuit? Would ye then that I should make the beginning with them that serve as soldiers? What sin then do not these commit every day, insulting, reviling, frantic, making a gain of other men’s calamities, being like wolves, never clear from offenses, unless one might say the sea too was without waves. What passion doth not trouble them? what disease cloth not lay siege to their soul? For to their equals they show a jealous disposition, and they envy, and seek after vainglory; and to those that are subject to them, their disposition is covetous; but to them that have suits, and run unto them as to a harbor, their conduct is that of enemies and perjured persons. How many robberies are there with them! How many frauds! How many false accusations, and meannesses! how many servile flatteries! Come then, let us apply in each case the law of Christ. “He that saith to his brother, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Mt 5,22 He that hath looked on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her.(Mt 5,28 Unless one humble himself as the little child, he shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Mt 18,3


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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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