A School of Forgiveness
1/1/2015Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori
One summer long ago, while playing outdoors as a child, I cut myself on a rusty object. I immediately ran home and presented the wound to my mother, who took me to the pediatrician for a tetanus shot. As the doctor prepared the needle, he tried to engage me in conversation. “Tell me what happened, young man,” he said. My response was, “Gimme the shot. We can talk later!” “So much for child psychology,” he sighed, giving me the vaccine in short order.
If only dealing with spiritual wounds were that simple. Moms and dads know how to help their children when they are physically injured or ill, but they are often not as well-equipped to deal with the deeper injuries that are part of life. I refer to the emotional pain that we inflict on those whom we should love the most: our parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends. As the popular old tune puts it, “You always hurt the one you love.”
THE DIFFICULTY OF FORGIVING
Have you ever stopped to think about why we are so prone to hurt our loved ones? I’m sure there are profound answers to that question, but let’s stick to the basics. One of the reasons we hurt our loved ones is because they are close by. We’re with them all the time. We’re eating the same food, waiting to use the same bathroom and competing for the same affections. Sharing a household, there are plenty of reasons for family members to become irritated with one another.
When we’re at home, we see our family members at their best and worst. We see them when everything is going well but also when they are grieving, disappointed or just plain out of sorts. We see them when they are generous but also when they are petty. Early on, we learn what makes our loved ones happy but also what gets on their nerves. And whether we like it or not, our family members know us in just the same way. Most of the irritants pass quickly and are forgotten, but sometimes the wounds run deeper and can do lasting damage if they remain untreated.
It would be simple if we could heal such wounds by going to a doctor for medication or a shot. But more is required. The ultimate healing for emotional and spiritual wounds is called forgiveness. In fact, the family is our first school of forgiveness (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1657, 2227).
Of course, it’s not always easy to forgive a person who has wronged us, because our pride often gets in the way. But when we fail to forgive, our wound festers and becomes a chronic open sore. Grudges and hatreds make our inner life painful, doubly so if they are directed at those under our own roof.
It is not easy to forgive and forget, yet the Lord teaches us to pray each day, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus’ words ring in our ears: “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Mt 6:15). To forgive others, we need the Lord’s help. We need to go to the source of forgiveness, Christ crucified and risen. And we do this by regularly making a good, honest, unburdening confession of our sins in the sacrament of reconciliation.
THE POWER OF GOD’S MERCY
There was a time when most Catholic families went to confession every Saturday afternoon. I remember standing in line for confession many times behind my parents as well as friends and neighbors. Truth to tell, I was a bit nervous about the whole thing, but I thought, “If they can do it, I can do it.” To this day, every time I receive the sacrament of reconciliation, I think of the good example and encouragement my mom and dad provided for me. “You’ll feel better after you go to confession,” mom promised and she was right.
I often think that family members would get along with each other a lot better if they resumed the practice of regularly going to confession. After all, the sacrament of reconciliation is more than therapy or anger management, necessary as those steps may sometimes be. In this sacrament, the Lord wipes away our sins and gives us the grace to start afresh. And if we are truly open to this wonderful sacrament, he helps us to forgive those who have wronged us, including those closest to us. Once we’ve experienced God’s merciful love, we will grow in our capacity to forgive, even when something unthinkable happens.
The most important skills and lessons are learned first and foremost in the home, and that is certainly the case with forgiveness. When a husband and wife welcome God’s mercy into their hearts and grow in their capacity to forgive each other, they teach their children an invaluable lesson: the ability to forgive and forget. This includes learning how to talk over disagreements, trying to meet the other more than halfway, and developing the capacity to control one’s anger and to avoid words that sting and wound. None of us, least of all myself, has perfected the art of forgiveness, but when a husband and wife are serious about it, their good example is likely to influence their children.
Homes that practice reconciliation affect the world around them, and a parish filled with families that are growing in the art of forgiveness will be a joyful and fruitful parish. Families that help young people learn how to forgive are doing our hardened and polarized culture a favor.
What better way, then, to begin the New Year than by resolving to build a domestic church, a family, and a home that knows how to forgive and be forgiven?