The Power of Forgiveness
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
It was Oct 2, 2006 and 20-year old rookie firefighter paramedic, Matt Swatzell, just finished a 24 hour shift. As he was driving home, he was tired and nodded off for three or four seconds, just enough time for his car to swerve across the center lane and hit an approaching car head-on. Thirty-year old June Fitzgerald, who was seven months pregnant, died instantly, but her 19 month old daughter Faith survived.
The paramedic, Matt Swatzell, was in despair. “I’m an EMT and paramedic who helps people in tragic situations,” he lamented. “And here I was the one who caused this terrible accident.” The husband, Erik Fitzgerald, who just lost his wife and soon to be baby was in shock.
Sometime later when prosecutors asked Fitzgerald whether he wanted to pursue the maximum sentence against Matt Swatzell, the newly widowed father said enough lives had been destroyed. Instead of vengeance, he wanted to demonstrate grace. You see, Erik Fitzgerald is a Christian pastor who knew he needed to practice what he preached. So the judge sentenced Swatzell with community service and a fine.
But that’s not the end of the story. Two years after the accident, these two men accidentally met at a grocery story. When the pastor saw Matt, he walked up to him and the paramedic began to cry uncontrollably. Pastor Erik just hugged him and told him he forgave him.
“Just hearing the words “I forgive you” completely changed my life,” Swatzell would say. “I had two years of guilt and anguish built up within me and I couldn’t imagine how he could ever forgive me.”
The two men talked for two hours that day and bonded in an unexpected and indefinable way. Pastor Erik told the young man, “I don't know what you're going to say to this, but I just feel like I'm supposed to stay connected with you somehow.” Imagine, a man tells the one who accidentally killed his wife and unborn child that he wants to stay connected with him.
And that’s exactly what happened. Over the next 10 years, the two men met regularly. The pastor would tell Swatzell not to let that accident define who he is. The paramedic found hope in the mercy he received and in this special friendship.
Their friendship deepened as the years unfolded. Swatzell got to know Pastor Erik’s daughter, Faith, who is now 12, and after he himself married and had children of his own, the two families still get together, even spending holidays together.
"He's become like a big brother to me,” Matt admitted. “We have a lot of fun together as crazy as this might sound. It's really something unique."
“Just seeing his daughter Faith play with my kids puts a smile on my face. It really hurts when I think about Faith’s mother, but it's the cards that we were dealt. And now it's our story together. I’ve learned that where there's mercy and grace, authentic healing can take place. There’s always hope for miracles to happen.
While he knows Pastor Erik has truly forgiven him, Matt Swatzell confessed that he still wrestles with his own demons of guilt and admits he's not sure if he has forgiven himself. “I can’t say, ‘This is a beautiful story and it's got a great ending because something sad and tragic really happened. It's real and it's something that I'm going to struggle with for the rest of my life, yet from this tragedy came an amazing blessing.”
Both men view their friendship as a special blessing from God, a feeling cemented recently after Pastor Erik welcomed another child into his life with his new wife. Their baby was born on the same due date as the unborn child he and his first wife June had been expecting. (This story was written by Robin Sindler and Eun Kyung Kim)
Think about the power of such mercy and forgiveness, the power of Pastor Erik to not allow a terrible tragedy to poison his heart with anger, bitterness, resentment and hatred. He tasted one of the worst possible experiences in life through the death of his wife and child, yet he made room for God’s grace to not only heal him and his daughter Faith, but to share that divine grace with Matt Swatzell, giving him also a chance to find healing and new life.
Whenever we are confronted in life with a choice to forgive or not forgive someone else, we are given a choice to experience the grace of life or the horror of death. By holding on to resentment, bitterness, anger, and even hatred, we open the door to misery and death in our own lives. We may be tempted to think that by holding on to a grudge, by not forgiving the other, we are punishing this person. Yet our unwillingness to show mercy and to forgive another, even if they have deeply hurt us, will ultimately impact us in a negative way. By our unwillingness to forgive and offer grace, we close ourselves off from the mercy and grace that Almighty God offers to us. I love the analogy that holding on to a grudge and not forgiving another is equivalent to swallowing poison and then waiting for the one we are angry with to die from it. Our pride fools us into not forgiving another, and this ungracious act will hinder us from receiving God’s grace.
We get an understanding of this in today’s Gospel story of the Unforgiving Servant. Jesus describes a servant who owed a king an insurmountable debt. Ten thousand talents would be equivalent to millions of dollars for a simple servant who could never possibly repay this debt during his lifetime. The king, though, forgives the debt for no other reason than his great mercy. Following this incredible act of grace, this same servant meets a fellow servant who owes him 100 days wages. For a simple man, his fellow servant owed him a serious debt. Yet, a debt incomparable to the one he owed the king. And instead of imitating the king’s grace and forgiveness, he chooses to NOT show the same grace and mercy to his fellow servant and doesn’t forgive him. By turning away from God’s mercy, he basically rejects his master’s mercy. His hardness of heart and his arrogant rejection of God’s grace, in the end harms himself, because he no longer stays open to God’s gracious spirit of love.
May we all remember this in our lives, whenever we are confronted with a choice to forgive or not forgive someone else. We are given a choice to experience the grace of life or the misery of death. By holding on to resentment, bitterness, and anger, and being unwilling to forgive and offer grace to someone else, we close ourselves off from the mercy and grace that Almighty God gladly offers to us. Yet by showing mercy and forgiving another, we open our hearts to receive the healing power of God’s amazing grace, and to help another experience that healing grace as well!