Sunday Scriptures: Readings for Sept. 17, Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

It happened in late December of 1983, just days after Christmas.

Pope John Paul II, the world's most-traveled pope, journeyed just a short distance from where he lived, into a section of Rome he probably didn't know very well. But the trip was further than most of us could imagine and further than many of us might be able to go ourselves.

The pope went to the Rebibbia Prison to meet face to face with Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who just two years earlier had attempted to kill him. Entering Agca's cell, the pontiff sat in a simple chair in a barren room and spent most of the next 20 minutes listening intently to the young man who had shot him in St. Peter's Square. It was, by any measure, an extraordinary encounter. Photographs of that December meeting captured a scene of striking intimacy, the two men sharing a small space, the pope leaning forward to catch every word.

Prison guards and papal officials who watched the meeting from outside the open cell said the conversation was hushed, quiet. No one could hear what was being said.

At the end, John Paul stood up to leave. A Vatican spokesman later said Agca knelt to kiss the pontiff's ring.

Afterward, the pope spoke briefly to reporters. ''What we said to each other is a secret between him and me,'' he said. ''I spoke to him as I would speak to a brother whom I have forgiven and who enjoys my confidence.''

To this day, that meeting in Rebibbia remains one of the most moving and memorable illustrations of the command that lies at the heart of this Sunday's Gospel: forgive, and forgive again, and forgive again, 77 times. "Forgive your brother from your heart," Jesus says.

The first reading, from Sirach, also makes it plain:

"Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven... Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor."

Or, as the most famous prayer in the world puts it, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

We pray those words so easily and so often. But do we really practice what we pray? Forgiveness goes against our nature. Nothing is more satisfying than revenge. And if we're honest, we have to admit: when someone hurts us, we want to get even.

How often do we harbor a grudge or seethe over a slight? How often do we let problems from the past cast a long shadow and darken our thinking?

As he did so often, Jesus in this passage offered another way, a better way, a way of moving beyond the pain of the past and charting a new path forward. Grudges and resentment are roadblocks to healing -- and they certainly stand in defiance of Christ's new commandment that we hear in the verse before the Gospel:

"Love one another, as I have loved you."

A key component, we realize, is mercy -- the desire to forgive what seems unforgivable, to love one who we may think is unlovable. That holds true whether that person is an enemy, a family member, a neighbor, a co-worker -- or even a troubled young man who tried to kill you.

It's telling, I think, that just moments before Jesus speaks these words about forgiveness, Matthew's gospel offers the story of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to go in search of the one who is lost. All of us, in some way, are called to look out for those who may not be able to look out for themselves -- the ones who wander, become distracted, or end up lost. This Sunday's gospel takes that a step further and commands us to never give up on mercy, never tire of forgiveness, never grow weary of offering a second chance to another.

Forty years ago, a pope did that in a prison cell. How can we follow his example?

- Deacon Greg Kandra is an award-winning author and journalist, and creator of the blog, "The Deacon's Bench."