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An interview with Fr. John Burns by Sr. Maris Stella, SV and Sr. Fidelity Grace, SV

Fr. John Burns is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He studied Business Marketing and worked in commercial fishing off the coast of Australia before realizing the deeper call to become a “fisher of men.” He was ordained to the priesthood in 2010, and completed a doctorate on the theology of healing through forgiveness. He speaks at conferences, preaches missions, and directs retreats throughout the country. He is the author of Lift Up Your Heart: A 10-Day Personal Retreat with St. Francis de Sales, and is a retreat director for the Sisters of Life and the Missionaries of Charity.

How have you witnessed people find healing through forgiveness?

I have been amazed and brought to tears in witnessing the power of God’s grace to bring order and to heal what has been wounded by sin. I have walked with people who were stuck in physical, emotional, psychological pain — and even diabolical oppression — until they forgave. I can say with confidence that there is simply no deep healing without some engagement of forgiveness.

How would you define forgiveness?

The idea of forgiveness often intimidates people. It can appear that forgiveness fails to uphold justice, and in other situations, forgiveness — especially for men — seems like a form of weakness. In cases of severe trauma or deep pain, the idea of confronting one’s offender is terrifying and even imprudent. Forgiveness is first and foremost a matter of the heart. Forgiveness can be achieved even without interaction and reconciliation with one’s offender. This means we are able to forgive those who are deceased or with whom it is impossible or unsafe to communicate. This fact is incredibly hopeful. In terms of a concrete definition, mature and lasting forgiveness entails several components: the choice to let go of the quest for revenge, the emotional release of the demand for repayment, the decision to leave the pursuit of justice to another authority (either God or civil authority), and the pivot from ill-will to good-will, where the one who forgives shifts the posture of his/her heart toward the offender from curse to blessing. When we truly forgive, we share in the gift of Jesus Christ on the Cross as we offer an undeserved gift to one who has hurt us.

What are the most common wounds we experience, and how do they affect us?

The pain we bear in our hearts can be complicated and layered. Our wounds were likely inflicted as a fruit of sin, and sin is the playground of evil. The evil one sows lies around our wounds that distort the truth about ourselves, about others, and even about God. Dr. Bob Schuchts names seven major wounds: rejection, abandonment, fear, shame, powerlessness, hopelessness, and confusion. These wounds assert an agonizing but often subtle influence over our hearts, as we experience tremendous uncertainty about ourselves and our ability to flourish. We might feel like our hearts are just never going to be whole. We tend to replay the wounding incident over and over again, which leads to resentment — literally a “re-feeling” of the sorrow and anger aroused by the injustice. We might feel broken, dirty, misunderstood, forgotten, ashamed, and enraged all at once. But we want to renounce the lies that have trapped us and replace them with the truth of our identity in Christ Jesus.

What’s the first step in the forgiveness process?

First, we have to take an account of our pain — how we’ve been hurt and who has hurt us. It’s important to honestly recognize and feel our sorrow and resentment (to weep or cry out in anger) rather than deny or suppress our emotions. These emotions are telling us something about what went wrong and, in turn, about our hearts; to avoid them or suppress them amounts to a form of dishonesty. Yet, as helpful and important as our emotions are, we also recognize that they so easily mislead us, and so they must be addressed rationally. We have to look at the people toward whom we feel sorrow, anger, and resentment, and make a decision: do we continue on the road toward which our emotions point, which is toward revenge, or are we willing to choose another way? When we feel stuck, it is helpful to recognize the binding force of unforgiveness. Christ reminds us, “Unless you forgive others your trespasses, your Father will not forgive you yours” (Mt 6:15). Unforgiveness, the place out of which we plot revenge and stew in hatred, actually closes our hearts to God’s mercy. And we have to admit that our attempts to live with the anger or to get rid of the resentment on our own terms simply have not worked, but have only intensified our anger.

What do we do after we’ve let ourselves be real with our emotions?

We release our debtors and surrender the administration of justice to God and, if fitting, to another authority. With God’s help, we begin to discover the other person as he or she is before God: broken, in need of healing, and often carrying a long story of pain that we usually cannot see. We can — difficult as it may be — even come to unite our pain to His upon the Cross and offer it for the salvation of the very ones who hurt us. Eventually in prayer, we may place ourselves at the foot of the Cross, with our offenders. We observe the face of Christ who looks upon them with love as He suffers for their salvation. Gradually, we come to share God’s desire for the well-being and salvation of all persons, even our enemies.

And the final step?

Finally, we can pronounce, in Jesus’ name, words of forgiveness. Over time, with Christ as our model, we can pray for or practice charity towards those who persecute us. This is a divine achievement. It is a pure gift.

What if it doesn’t feel like we have forgiven another?

People often ask this question, and it eludes a catch-all answer because each heart is unique. What can be said universally is that stepping into forgiveness and sharing Christ’s heart in forgiveness is like the emotional solution we never knew we needed. As we forgive, we discover the overly intense emotions lose their chokehold on the heart. Even if they do not fully disperse, the posture of our heart has shifted and thus evil no longer has such a textured and craggy landscape within which to hide. In forgiveness, we step out of the darkness and into the light, making a moral choice that has real implications — whether they are immediately felt or not. Because we have chosen the way of Jesus Christ, we can make an act of faith that something real has occurred within us. This allows grace to work within us. Eventually, with repetition of the forgiveness process, the emotions do follow. One of the most common reasons we often don’t feel like we have forgiven is because we unknowingly skip over the structure of our emotions. If we want to forgive someone who has hurt us, we have to forgive them for each of the wounds they have inflicted on us. We have to be conscious of the specific acts done (great and small) and the emotions that follow. This is a process that takes time. It can seem daunting, but if we skip this, the emotions keep us trapped in the insistence for repayment and punishment. The good news here is that each act of forgiveness for each specific injury weakens the power of our inordinate emotions. Choosing forgiveness often requires a repeated renewal of that choice.

How can we find healing for painful memories?

Because God sees past, present, and future in a single glance, He knows how our whole story fits together. The healing of memories amounts to a Divine retelling of our story, through which our recollection (memory) of events comes to align more with God’s perspective of our past. Even though we might wish parts of our story away, God does not. God sees perfectly well how the places of pain and suffering are filled with potential for mercy and healing love. He purifies our memories in the light of grace to reveal His power, love, and care. Our pain forces us to recognize our inability to survive on our own. When it is offered to God, we discover, like St. Paul, that in our weakness we are made strong (cf. 2 Cor 12:10). The process of praying with memories begins by calling on the Holy Spirit, begging the Lord to show us how He sees the events that still cause us such pain. In prayer, when we observe the events of our painful past with God, we learn that God was also there. We discover that the moment of wounding was not a moment of abandonment at all. Rather, it was a moment in which the Lord allowed something that, although painful, would eventually lead us to the deeper knowledge of God’s goodness that comes to us in the present as healing. In the end, our pain is either a weapon for Satan or a powerful instrument for the Lord. In the Divine embrace, our pain becomes the pathway to the most profound and beautiful dimensions of God’s love.

How do we persevere when we struggle with painful emotions?

Because psychology offers us so much help in the realm of healing, we may risk falling into some form of self-reliance, thinking we can heal ourselves without God. But when our emotions churn wildly and we feel like we’ve lost control, the most important thing we can do is surrender control and turn our attention to God; we can welcome His presence and the power of His healing gaze. Sacramental grace and contemplation of the truth will always bear more fruit in us than any of our own independent efforts. Also, the most overlooked dimension of healing is the practice of virtue, which brings order to our passions.

How does healing happen, ultimately?

The deepest dimensions of healing are really quite miraculous. We cannot adequately describe how we are made well; we just know it happened. Healing takes place in a secret way, only fully understood to God, and felt intimately by each broken heart. Healing is simply about the restorative power of authentic love that replaces our pain. We are reminded of who we really are — beloved sons and daughters of the Father, who holds us tenderly in His love.

Originally published in IMPRINT, Spring 2021.