I remember attending a class on Iconography. Like the human person, no two Icons are exactly alike because each one is created uniquely by the creator. They are not painted or made, but the correct verb is to “pray an Icon.” The creation of the Icon is a very long prayer, frequently done in the midst of trying and difficult times. Icons are not pictures, but in fact “portals.” Oftentimes you will see an Icon with a candle burning above or near it. This is to tell us that there is something more than just the image of the saint in front of you; the very saint is present. As one prays in front of the Icon it is believed that on the other side of the portal of the Icon, the saint is looking at you.
With this image in mind, is it any wonder the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Cardinal Dolan would refer to New York Detective Steven McDonald as “an Icon of mercy and forgiveness?” This past week I joined police from everywhere to gather at St. Agnes Cathedral to remember the first anniversary of Steven’s death. The word Icon refers to an “immediate recognition of a universally understood meaning,” for example a stop sign, the Apple logo, the presidential seal. But a real Icon goes even further in that it not only reminds us of the meaning, but it participates in and re-presents the meaning itself; just as the saint is believed to be really present behind the image of the Icon. This is why Cardinal Dolan would refer to Detective Steven McDonald as “an Icon of mercy and forgiveness.” Steven was more than just a symbol of mercy and forgiveness—he actually lived mercy and forgiveness. When anyone met Steven McDonald they were encountering mercy and encountering forgiveness. He wasn’t just a reminder, but he was mercy and forgiveness lived. This is what the Icon does.
Steven McDonald was shot in Central Park by 15-year-old Shavod Jones and was paralyzed for the rest of his life. A few months later at the baptism of his son Conor, Steven McDonald forgave Shavod Jones for having shot him. “I forgive him and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life.” That is what makes Steven McDonald an Icon of mercy forgiveness.
I am reminded of a similar incident in the life of Saint John Paul II who was also shot and forgave his attacker. In 1981 the Pope was shot and critically wounded by Mehmet Ali Agca in Saint Peter’s Square. Two years later John Paul visited Agca in prison and spoke privately with him. The iconic picture was seen around the world. The Pope told the world: “What we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me. I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned.”
How can these men do such a thing? Forgiveness is one of the hardest things for us to do. Forgiveness is not natural—because it is supernatural. And therein lays the answer: to forgive is not a human quality, but a Divine quality. Forgiveness is the first word uttered from the Cross. It is not easy for us to forgive because it is Godlike. The ancient Jews believed it was Yahweh who forgives. When we forgive we exercise this supernatural and Divine attribute. The saints say that when we forgive, we are most like God Himself.
I am told that very often at night the van that transported Steven McDonald could be found at his local parish church. I have even heard that he would go so often that the pastor gave him his own church key. He would go there to pray his rosary. That is what enabled this man who lived so many of his years upon the cross to become for us an “Icon of mercy and forgiveness.” He often told those who came to hear his story the importance of his Roman Catholic faith, saying that “if people wanted forgiveness, they had to show it to others.”
Saint John Paul II often said: “There are no coincidences, only ‘God-incidences.’” On the day of Steven McDonald’s funeral the gospel that was read by every priest throughout the world at every Catholic Mass offered in every church was the gospel of the paralyzed man. (Mark 2) “They came bringing to Jesus a paralyzed man carried by four men. They let down the mat on which the paralyzed man was lying…. He said to the man ‘I say rise and go home.’ They were all astounded.” I am thinking now of those who had faithfully accompanied Steven these past 30 years. One can ask the question: Was it his brothers who carried the paralyzed man, or was it in fact the paralyzed man himself who all along had been carrying them to Christ?
– Fr. Gerard Gordon