Francis in Lesbos confronts the unforgivable sin



In a generally confused childhood, a period that featured regular religious training, I found one source of confusion to be particularly nagging. Not to mention terrifying. This was the weighty matter of the unforgivable sin.

The Power and the Glory by Graham GreenI had no idea what this sin consisted of, but was sure I had committed it, all unwittingly.

I was reluctant to ask my elders about this problem, mainly because their patience periodically wore thin under the onslaught of my frequent insomnia, during which spells I roamed the house, to general parental irritation.

Sleep, when it came, was punctuated by lurid and lingering nightmares, which caused more irritation. Hence I decided it didn't do to test the temporal powers too far or too often, especially as I had little certainty about my status with the Almighty.

So there was nothing for it but to engage in my own research, which became an intermittent project over years. But another problem was that of lack of clarity and decision. Scripture seemed to indicate that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit was the ultimate horror, but some theologians opted for the rejection of Christ, while others considered suicide to be the worst sin one could commit.

Not unnaturally, I remained confused.

Fast forward to mid-adolescence, when the novels of Graham Greene were often school-prescribed reading. The most popular of these was The Power and the Glory, in which Greene ponders, among other matters, the question of whether a sinful whisky priest can transmit God's mercy and grace.

The priest languishes in despair, and in his view this is the unforgivable sin: he concludes that his transgressions are such that God's forgiveness cannot apply to him, and so he is damned.


"There have been predictable grumblings about political motivation, but so what? The Pope has taken some action."


The reader, I think, has to grapple with another difficulty: how can the priest be certain, and is his assumption about what God will or will not do yet another sin? The priest himself eventually considers that the mystery has become too great. Way back then I understood how he felt about the mystery, and I still understand.

Despair is surely a great temptation in today's extremely troubled world. What can one feel except helpless in the face of the stark realities that confront huge numbers of ordinary people through no fault of their own?

In 416 BC, Thucydides, famous for his History of the Peloponnesian War and his notions of the ways in which politics operate, wrote that 'the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must'. Nothing much has changed, except that the world is far larger and more populous, so that the power of the strong increases, along with the suffering of the weak.

Pity the multitudes who have fled their homes in Syria only to risk their lives at sea, and then to face encampment in dire circumstances at various borders. The border between FYROM/Macedonia and Greece has been closed for weeks, with predictable results: those desperate enough to try to cross it have been repelled by means of tear gas and rubber bullets.

Now the EU has concocted a scheme whereby asylum seekers who have come to Greece from Turkey can be compelled to return there, but nobody seems to know what happens then. That circumstance, to my mind and to many others, is bound to create profound despair.

But Pope Francis recently paid a fleeting visit to the island of Lesbos, another scene of immigrants' dire suffering, and surprised the world by taking 12 refugees back to Rome with him.

Bernie Sanders asserted that the Pope, in his gesture of hope, is surely the greatest demonstration against a surrender to despair. There have been predictable grumblings about political motivation, but so what? The Pope has taken some action.

I am still partly persuaded by Greene's view of despair as being the unforgivable sin, but I'm also giving some thought to the distressing matter of indifference.

Indifference can be lethal, particularly when it prevails in high places: one has only to think of the out-of-sight/out-of-mind rationale behind Australian migrant detention centres to learn and know that this is true. In such places, far too many people are having their hopes, dreams and spirits destroyed.

There is something neatly symbolic about the Pope's 12 refugees. The Australian government has promised to take 12,000 such people, a very small number on a global scale. But of that small number, how many have so far actually arrived on these protected shores?


Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Pope Francis, Lesbos



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Existing comments

Thank you Gillian for these reflections. Despair or indifference? Very confusing about which may be worst... But can the consequences be distinguished between them? In the case of Australian refugees it does seem that indifference has allowed the more appalling results.

Suzanne | 19 April 2016  

No such thing! The unforgiveable sin that is. The only sin that is unforgiveable is the one the sinner refuses to acknowledge and ask for God's forgiveness. With respect to indifference to asylum seekers and refugees my concern is twofold. First there are those who gladly support the immoral teleological argument employed by the Australian Government that we 'have stopped the boats ' that is that the policy works to rid us of the responsibility of processing asylum seekers. Instead we lock them up in overseas detention centres where there can be little scrutiny of their treatment. For the Aussie public " out of sight, out of mind" this tactic appears to be working. Second there is compassion fatigue. There are so many gross injustices reported on social media, so many campaigns by eg and similar groups that many feel swamped by requests for help even for the signing of a letter. One avenue open to such good people to maintain their own sanity in this insane uncaring world is escapism. So the popular TV programmes are cooking shows or talent quests or sport; in fact anything but facing the serious issues that beset our society. How do we change this?

Ern Azzopardi | 19 April 2016  

Over many years in Japan - and quite honestly previously entirely dismissive of superstitions involving amulets and good-luck charms - I gradually for a variety of reasons came to a slightly different compromised position on such things. So this morning at the airport of Mexico-city - having just returned from a visit to Cuba - visited six or seven months ago by Pope Francis - as in Mexico City, too - where he visited the Basilica of the Virgen de Guadalupe - I was prompted to purchase a little silver pendant to add to my collection of such things gathered over the years. This amulet had the image of Pope Francis and the Virgin in the one small frame - together! The Virgin of Guadalupe is famous in Mexico for having appeared to the local people - around the time the Spanish were beginning to appear in their great capital. I am now writing from Miami - finally back on "whiffy" (WiFi) - and catching up on mail and news - and learning of this extraordinary and exemplary act by the head of the Catholic Church - in conjunction with his Eastern Orthodox counterpart - and taking Muslim refugees no less. I am heartened by this shining show of compassion - as much as I remain depressed by those who turn cold hearts and narrowed eyes on our brothers and sisters fleeing wars in which we are more than complicit in causing and in further fanning the flames. The dishonourable Peter Dutton made great show of visiting refugee camps of Syrians who had fled their land - amid promises of bringing such a number as you say Gillian - yet I seem to recall reading some six or seven weeks ago (or maybe more recently) that not even 100 had arrived in Australia. What hypocrisy and indifference. I am with you on the unforgivableness of that as the greatest sin!

Jim KABLE | 19 April 2016  

Despair is the 'unforgiveable' sin, if we can even posit that there's something God can't forgive. In fact, God can forgive anything, and will, but if we can't accept the forgiveness, or believe in its possibility, God's forgiving love has no effect on us. Then again, if we are indifferent, to the cry of the poor for example, God's healing love can have no effect through us. But we can be forgiven for that - we can't be forgiven for the despair that leads to indifference. Hmm, all those words and I've said nothing....Thanks, Gillian, you really did say something important.

Joan Seymour | 19 April 2016  

Thank you, Gillian for yet another insightful comment with a world-wide view. The Pope's gesture certainly puts in context the Australian government's appalling record on treatment of refugees.With the coming election will there be any change? I fear not.

Meriel Wilmot-Wright | 19 April 2016  

Thanks for a thought provoking article Gillian. I also pondered this question when young, but have since come to the conclusion that it is not a particular sin in itself, but rather the sin that we refuse to, or are unable to recognize, and consequently this is the only reason that it is unforgiveable. It is not an 'external' disallowance of forgiveness, but in fact 'we' who disallow forgiveness, by the very nature of our unrecognition. I think a parallel can be drawn from within the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry. If one for some reason can never be made to recognize their particular ailment, then they are deemed incurable.

John Whitehead | 20 April 2016  

A least a person in despair still cares. It is better than indifference. All of us reading this article could at least take the time to write to our MPs to remind them of Australia's promises to these refugees.

Stephen | 20 April 2016  

Unnecessarily worrying about our supposedly damning serious 'sins' - which were possibly not sins at all but what the Catholic Church calls scruples - used to be part of adolescent angst as was seeking answers from the likes of Graham Greene and his works. What Pope Francis did at Lesbos was an example. There are people who have questioned this example and pilloried him for it. They are people who like to see things as black and white which then leads them to envisage and propose a supposedly 'simple solution' which actually makes things worse. Francis did not solve the refugee crisis by doing what he did but he lit a small candle to show us what was possible. His action can give us Hope. There have been many other practical positive actions from both individuals and groups in regard to refugees. Perhaps, as a nation, we could follow Canada's example of quickly resettling their agreed quota of Syrian refugees? The Syrian Crisis will go on for a long time. We need to beware of compassion fatigue.

Edward Fido | 20 April 2016  

I wonder whether fear and fatigue more than indifference are the main reasons for neglecting the plight of refugees - fear of involvement that goes beyond gestures and fatigue in regarding active response as all too hard.

John | 21 April 2016  

If "sin" is the transgression of a moral code, perhaps the deliberate suppression of or acting against the dictates of one's conscience is a more active interpretation of this term than the passive, often involuntary states or modes of indifference and despair - the latter implying the loss or absence of hope, often induced by circumstances of disempowerment beyond the subject's control. For reasons of expedience or impracticability, many governments seem not to possess or exercise something akin to a collective conscience or moral compass, while that of individual politicians is often overridden by obligations to the collective. In certain contexts, some governments appear to actively impede members of the community from attempting acts of compassion and empathy. Why has the non-refundable application fee for a journalist's visa to Nauru increased from $200 dollars to $8,000 - the most expensive such visa in the world? Why are companies allegedly involved in financial scandals in the Caribbean paid nearly 22 million dollars a month (2014) to guard asylum seekers who are treated as if they had no more rights than sheep? "To cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life". (Samuel Johnson) (Figures from the "Australian Women's Weekly", vol. 86 no. 3, March 2016)

Jena Woodhouse | 22 April 2016  


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