Ethos Education

Philomena: Who benefits from forgiveness?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Awareness of Christian teaching on forgiveness.
  • Understanding of the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation.
  • Awareness of the effect of forgiveness in modern situations.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon factors that make it easy or difficult to forgive.
  • Evaluate reasons why past events may make it hard for people to forgive one another.
  • Analyse biblical teaching on the subject of forgiveness.
  • Reflect on the importance of reconciliation for those who have wronged others.
  • Analyse a key Bible passage to determine the significance of reconciliation in the Christian faith.
  • Synthesise learning by writing a summary of the reasons why someone might choose to forgive a terrible wrongdoing against them.


Set up a continuum line across the classroom with the words, ‘Impossible to forgive’ at one end and ‘Easy to forgive’ at the other. Tell students you are going to read out a set of scenarios. For each one, students must decide how easy they would find it to forgive the perpetrator and place themselves accordingly on the continuum line. Pause between each scenario to ask individual students to justify their positioning.

As a static version of the same activity, give pairs or small groups of students a set of the Forgiveness Scenario Cards worksheet. Ask them to set up a continuum line on their desks with the card, ‘Impossible to forgive’ at one end and the card, ‘Easy to forgive’ at the other. Divide the scenario cards between the students in the group and ask students to take it in turns to read out a scenario card and place it on the continuum line according to how easy or difficult they would find it to forgive the perpetrator, justifying their decision to the rest of the group. Students should challenge one another’s decisions whilst acknowledging that, having discussed it, they may agree to differ.

These scenarios are replicated on the worksheet for use with the static version. If any of the scenarios are too close to home for some students (for example, if there has been a recent bereavement in the family in similar circumstances to one of the cards) you might want to remove that scenario and not use it.

  • Your best friend stands by and does nothing as bullies beat you up.
  • Your best friend repeatedly fails to help when bullies pick on you.
  • At a party, your boyfriend or girlfriend flirts with somebody else.
  • At a party, your boyfriend or girlfriend kisses somebody else.
  • A classmate tells the teacher that you were fighting at lunchtime.
  • A teacher wrongly accuses you of starting a fight, and you are internally suspended for a day.
  • Someone lies to the police, and you are arrested as a result.
  • A jury wrongly finds you guilty of a crime, unaware that the evidence presented to them is false.
  • A drunk driver kills a member of your family and drives away from the scene of the crime.
  • A drunk driver kills a member of your family, hands themselves in to the police and promises never to drink and drive again.

Encourage discussion and elicit feedback on what makes forgiveness harder or easier. Consider: the seriousness of the wrong; the extent to which the wrong can be put right; the age or mental stability of the perpetrator; the remorsefulness of the perpetrator; the changed nature of the perpetrator. Explain that in this lesson students will be exploring the Christian mandate for forgiveness with a particular focus on the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation.


Introduce the clip from the film Philomena (Pathe, 2013, certificate 12). Click here to buy the DVD online.

Explain that Philomena (Judi Dench) is an elderly woman who was forced to give her illegitimate child up for adoption when she was younger. With the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) she has tracked down her son, who was adopted by an American family and went on to establish a successful life as an aide to a succession of American Presidents. However, he died of AIDS several years before Philomena was able to find him. In this scene, Martin and Philomena return to the convent where Philomena lived, and they confront one of the nuns who made Philomena give up her son and who subsequently obstructed her attempts to find him.

  • Start time: 1.20.55 (in chapter 15 of the DVD)
  • End time: 1.25.12
  • Clip length: 4 minutes and 17 seconds

The clip begins with Philomena and Martin being shown into a waiting room. The first line is, ‘Sister Claire asked if you can wait in here.’ The clip ends with Martin saying, ‘Well, I couldn’t forgive you’. Please be aware that there is some swearing in this clip, which you might consider inappropriate for your group. If this is the case, we suggest using one of the other lessons in this module covering similar learning objectives to this one.

Ask the students whether they think they would have reacted more like Martin or more like Philomena.

Remind the students that when Martin expressed surprise at Philomena forgiving ‘just like that’, she countered by saying that it was hard for her to forgive. What makes forgiveness so hard? What does it cost the person who does the forgiving?

Split the class into pairs or small groups and ask them to read the following Bible passages together. For each passage they should make a list of what that passage has to say on the subject of forgiveness. Once everyone has completed this, bring the class back together and go through their observations together. If you want to get through this part of the lesson a little more quickly, you could only give each group a couple of passages and make sure that they take notes about the other passages during the collective feedback time. Here are the Bible passages: Matthew 5:38-48; Matthew 6:9-15; Matthew 18:21-35; Luke 7:36-50; John 8:1-11.

Remind the students that Philomena’s reason for forgiving Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) was that she didn’t ‘want to hate people’. Ask the students whether they think that the benefit of forgiving is chiefly felt by the one who is forgiven, or the one who does the forgiving. You might like to read the following quote to the class. Explain that Mary Foley is the mother of Charlotte, a 15-year old girl who was stabbed and killed at a party in 2005. This is part of what she has to say about her decision to forgive Charlotte’s killer:

‘For myself I knew that if I didn’t forgive, anger and bitterness would turn me into a person Charlotte would not have liked. A person that none of my family or friends would have liked, for that matter.

At first forgiveness was about freeing me, because without forgiveness I felt I would have ended up a prisoner’.

For Mary’s full statement, go to

Read Colossians 1:21-23 with the students. Explain that the concept of reconciliation is at the heart of the Christian faith. Christians believe that for people to know peace, it is necessary for them to be forgiven by God for their sins against him. Christians believe that not only did Jesus’ death on the cross pay for those sins, but it was also a profound demonstration of forgiveness and reconciliation. Christians believe that God’s plan for reconciliation also results in a new relationship, not simply a mutual moving on and parting of the ways.


Ask the students to read Mary Foley’s statement from the Forgiveness Project website (if they haven’t already done so). Ask them to write a summary of the reasons why someone who has experienced what Mary Foley or Philomena has might see forgiveness as a better option than hatred.


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