Freedom from the prison of bitterness

Nelson Mandela encapsulated ‘forgiveness’, writes Andrew O’Connell

Sunday February 11, 1990 was an important date in my life. It was the day, as a 12-year-old boy, that I saw Croke Park for the first time as Kerry played Dublin in a National Football league match.

It was also the date of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.

In addition to the vivid memory of catching the first glimpse of the old Hogan Stand as we turned onto Jones’ Road, I remember watching Mandela emerging from Victor Verster prison on the television in the corner of a dark pub in Parnell St, sipping Coke through straws before the match.

The grown-ups, who were discussing how Kerry would perform under the new manager, Mickey Ned O’Sullivan, stopped their conversation long enough for us children to realise that something momentous was happening that day in South Africa.

Noble defiance

We could see the raised fist of a dignified Mandela as he waved to the cheering crowd. It didn’t seem to be the clenched fist of vengeance but a symbol of noble defiance against a system that had legalised racism. 

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,” he said of that day, “I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

The words ‘forgiveness’ and ‘reconciliation’ have been thrown about a lot since Mandela’s passing. C.S. Lewis observed that “everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive”.

In Mere Christianity Lewis suggested that of all the Christian virtues, forgiveness is really the most unpopular. It’s not the other familiar and frequently cited moral strictures such as chastity. It’s a lot easier to admire forgiveness than to actually practice it ourselves.

And yet it’s at the heart of how we should behave. The Gospels make it clear that forgiveness is not an optional extra. We can’t expect forgiveness from God if we ourselves don’t forgive others.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke beautifully about forgiveness in the context of the Holy Thursday washing of the feet. He suggested that a very practical way of washing other people’s feet is to forgive. And he said that we must do this even when there is no guarantee that the one who hurts us will not do it again.


It’s said that holding a grudge is like taking poison in the hope that it will kill the other person. In contrast, forgiveness has the power to liberate the soul and, as Mandela stressed, free us from fear.

Mandela made a point of highlighting how crippling such fear can be. Indeed, his favourite quote from Shakespeare was Julius Caesar’s “Cowards die many times before their deaths”. Courage is not about feeling no fear, he said. It’s about overcoming it.

Forgiveness and courage led to Mandela’s liberation from the prisons of resentment and fear.

Liberated people are very uncommon in life. And that is perhaps why this man intrigued and inspired so many.


John Paul and Mandela

Pope John Paul II made his only official visit to South Africa in 1995.

Mandela was about to introduce a liberal abortion regime and John Paul didnít shy away from addressing the issue at an outdoor Mass in Johannesburg attended by the president.

In his homily he called on the women of Africa to ìrespect, protect, love and serve life, every human life, from conception to natural deathî.

Mandelaís abortion law granted abortion on demand up to the 12th week of pregnancy; abortion in widely defined circumstances to the 20th week; and abortion of babies with disabilities until birth.


Unlucky Visit

Pope John Paul II refused to visit South Africa before the fall of apartheid. He did, however, make an unscheduled stop there in 1988 when a thunderstorm forced his plane, travelling from Botswana to Lesotho, to divert to Johannesburg. On arrival at the airport, he declined to kiss the ground and made his way by car to Lesotho, a country entirely surrounded by South African territory.

That trip was plagued with bad luck. A bus-load of pilgrims, mainly school children and their teachers, was hijacked on the way to the papal Mass.

An ensuing gun battle led to the death of a young pilgrim and three hijackers. In a bizarre sequence of events the Popeís unscheduled motorcade passed within a few hundred yards of the hijacked bus. 

The following dayís papal Mass failed to draw the expected million people. Fewer than 10,000 showed up. One entrepreneur shipped in eight coffins for the occasion assuming that out of a crowd of over a million a good half-dozen were bound to drop dead! He went home disappointed.