: Bryant : Reconciliation and
Reconciliation and forgiveness
21 June 2006
Recent events in East Timor have focused attention once more on
the need to achieve reconciliation after a period of conflict. After
1999 it was reconciliation with former militia members and with
Indonesia that was needed. Now it is reconciliation between so-called
“Easterners” and “Westerners”, Lorosae and
While there has been a formal reconciliation process in East Timor
in the form of the Repection, Truth and Reconciliaiton Commission
(CAVR), President Xanana Gusmao has also consistently advocated
for reconciliation throughout the country, most recently through
the documentary A Hero’s Journey.
Central to Xanana’s approach is the role of forgiveness in
healing the past. He has repeatedly called on his people not to
demand punishment for their former oppressors, on the grounds that
this can lead to a destructive cycle of revenge.
Xanana has obviously come to his own peace with the past, and his
role as a peacemaker in the new nation cannot be overestimated.
But from a Catholic point of view, forgiveness by itself might not
produce the fruits that are needed for a country thirsting for peace.
This is my reflection on this issue, based not on a deep understanding
of the politics and history of East Timor, but on the insights that
a deep understanding of the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation
can offer a country like East Timor.
The sacrament of reconciliation is designed to bring peace, healing
and restoration to the minds, hearts and souls of people who have
committed sin or have been wounded by sin and need to forgive. For
the most part the healing is a mystery, and yet most people accept
that to forgive or to ask for forgiveness brings a freedom and release
to the heart (feelings), soul (relationship to God) and mind (conscience).
Although the sacrament is traditionally a relationship between
the individual and God but it also has relevance for communities
Forgiveness is normally understood as a personal choice to sacrifice
pain and suffering in the hope of peace and healing. It is ultimately
an act of faith with no proof that the peace will come and an understanding
that relief is not always immediate. Christians are promised salvation
for this offering. The word “salvation” itself is derived
from the word ‘salve’ meaning to heal.
The word “forgive” is translated from two words and
means to give completely, or completely give. Or the word may simply
be pulled apart to mean to give before. The mystery of the sacrament
of reconciliation is rooted in this notion that the sinner offers
their sin and this is transformed, not into admonishment but mercy,
healing and restoration.
Reconciliation requires forgiveness. But equally, forgiveness requires
truth and justice. For any nation that has experienced trauma and
human rights, establishing the truth is the starting point in the
process of reconciliation and forgiveness. As Pope John Paul II
said in his message on World Peace Day 1997,
Forgiveness, far from precluding the search for truth, actually
requires it. The evil which has been done must be acknowledged
and as far as possible corrected [justice]. It is precisely this
requirement which has led to the establishment in various parts
of the world of appropriate procedures for ascertaining the truth
regarding crimes between ethnic groups or nations, as a first
step towards reconciliation.
Justice is the sister of truth. It responds to the sins uncovered
in the exploration of truth. It is a deeply a sensitive legal, social,
emotional and political process that requires ongoing commitment
and resources. This continues to be the challenge for East Timor
as it attempts to balance the need for justice with the reality
of having to live with Indonesia. In Australia we are confronted
and continue to grapple with the question of saying sorry and the
need to take responsibility for the sufferings of Indigenous people
over the past two hundred years.
Pope John Paul II reminds us that forgiveness is not a substitute
to justice but an integral part of the process of peacebuilding.
He states that:
forgiveness is the opposite of resentment and revenge, not of
justice. In fact, true peace is “the work of justice. Forgiveness
is in no way opposed to justice, as if to forgive meant to overlook
the need to right the wrong done. It is rather the fullness of
justice, leading to that tranquillity of order, which is much
more than a fragile, and temporary cessation of hostilities, involving
as it does the deepest healing of the wounds, which fester in
human hearts. Justice and forgiveness are both essential to such
This has, at times, been recognised by Xanana — for instance,
when he writes that “those who committed violations of human
rights should face trial as a gesture of repentance.”
The thing that stays constant in both East Timor and in our own
nation is that people want peace and thirst for healing. This desire
is the fuel that propels them into the process of reconciliation
and forgiveness. The sacrament of reconciliation promises that the
fruits of this process will be peace, restoration and healing. What
must not be forgotten or simplified are the cries for truth and
justice – the things that are truly needed for reconciliation
to produce fruits.
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