It took Gary Ridgway nearly 20 years to be brought to justice. Ridgway, from Seattle in the USA, was a serial killer who told police he was missing the part of humanity that makes people care about others.
By the time he was caught, he had murdered at least 49 women, including a 16-year-old called Linda Rule. For years Linda’s father, Robert, and her family sought justice for Linda. Finally, in 2003 Ridgway was arrested. The lead investigator called his bespectacled eyes “two dark holes that go into a deep, dark pit.”
In court, Ridgway remained cold and without remorse. One by one, his victims’ loved ones stood up and spoke from their hearts, expressing their contempt for the killer sitting before them. The courtroom was full of anger and pain, understandably so. But Ridgway sat unmoved. The judge lambasted him for his “complete absence of compassion.”
Then it was Robert Rule’s turn to address the court. Rule was old by now; he worked as a Santa at a shopping centre and he looked the part. He was plump, with a big white beard, and for his day in court he wore a pair of rainbow suspenders. While family members of other victims had sobbed or screamed or wished death on Ridgway, Rule was extraordinarily composed as he faced his daughter’s killer. What he said shocked everyone, including the cold-hearted killer.
“Mr Ridgway, um, there are people here who hate you,” he said. “I’m not one of them. I forgive you for what you’ve done. You’ve made it difficult to live up to what I believe, and that is what God says to do, and that’s to forgive. And he doesn’t say to forgive just certain people. He says to forgive all. So you are forgiven, sir.”
As the father spoke, Ridgway’s chin began to quiver. He blinked rapidly. He started to weep. And then he took off his glasses.
Robert Rule’s words of forgiveness got to Gary Ridgway’s heart in a way no other words could.
The power of forgiveness.
Today we are celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation, the beautiful sacrament of God’s forgiveness. In his letter on marriage and family, The Joy of Love, Pope Francis uses three words or expressions that are worth remembering as we reflect on forgiveness and healing.
The first expression is “wounded families.” We are not perfect. Our families are not perfect. We know this. We know this all too painfully. We know from hard experience that the ideal of Christian marriage and family life is hard to live, and people fall out and couples live in imperfect situations. Francis calls them “wounded families” – and he says that pastors must “avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” and to “be attentive to how people experience distress because of their condition.”
Wounded families is an apt description. All families are wounded in one way or another. All of us are wounded in one way or another. And it’s okay to acknowledge it.
The second word is ‘gradualism.’ We are a work in progress, Francis says. Families are a work in progress. No family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; “families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love… All of us are called to keep striving towards something greater than ourselves and our families, and every family must feel this constant impulse.” We must always keep aiming towards being better. Growing all the time; growing in holiness, in mercy, in compassion, in forgiveness. Always growing in perfection.
The third expression is ‘field hospital.’ Francis uses the image of a field hospital to describe the church. The church must be a field hospital that cleans and heals wounds. The home must be a field hospital. Field hospital is a lovely image of church – out there tending to people.
So many families are wounded in one way or another. We have heard about them during this novena – people who don’t talk to each other, or who hurt each other sexually, emotionally, physically; people who disappoint those they love, or make decisions that let them down. The family is the primary battlefield where these hurts are experienced, and so the family must be the primary field hospital that cleans and heals these wounds. It means a willingness to forgive, to talk, to listen, to spend time together, to seek to understand differences, to appreciate one another. The family is the field hospital that must never leave wounds untended.
Being compassionate doesn’t mean watering down church teaching. Jesus proposed a demanding ideal, Francis says, but “never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery.” This must be our attitude also. To always show mercy.
That’s what we celebrate today. Confession is a type of field hospital – the sacred space where we have a personal encounter with the God of love and compassion. We gather as wounded families, wounded individuals, to be healed, restored, made whole again. New people forgiven, absolved, transformed.
Feel it – the power of forgiveness. Celebrate it – the power of forgiveness. Let it change you – the power of forgiveness. As Robert Rule demonstrated, and as Gary Ridgway discovered, forgiveness sets you free.
(Celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Mother of Perpetual Help novena, Mt St Alphonsus, Limerick.)