by Kathy and Mitch Finley
Few topics are as important—and as challenging—as forgiveness. Forgiveness is a challenge because, as parents and catechists, we have such an important influence in helping develop the consciences of young people. It’s also important because we ourselves often have not had the best formation when it comes to understanding sin and forgiveness.
As adults, we know that the basis for understanding forgiveness and being able to offer and receive forgiveness is God’s grace and forgiveness, given freely and generously to us, no matter who we are or what we have done. Franciscan Father Richard Rohr reminds us that God doesn’t love us because we are good but because God is good. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love and nothing we can do that can cut us off from God’s love. Without that personal realization and experience, we cannot understand forgiveness, and so we cannot offer or receive forgiveness ourselves.
Those Forgiving Times
There are plenty of occasions for forgiveness in the family. Not only is the neighbor whom I am called to love within my home, but so is my enemy! We regularly get on each other’s nerves and offend each other, usually without intending to do so.
In today’s world we hear about terrorism, school and mall shootings, bullying, and road-rage incidents—with little mention of forgiveness. It’s all about retaliation and getting even. We also live in a time with a mass-media industry that uses violence to entertain.
So in the face of all this, how do we as parents and catechists help highlight the ways that we are called to forgive as God has forgiven us? As with all experiences of faith, it begins at home. When there is a hurt that happens, we can do more than just tell those involved to “say you’re sorry.” We can use the incident as a teachable moment to help plant the seeds for the sacrament of reconciliation. We can ask the two people involved to sit down and, after a few minutes of reflection, state what they did and ask for and receive forgiveness. Say “please forgive me” and “I forgive you” (rather than saying, “that’s okay”).
The Skills of Forgiveness
This kind of exchange is built on several related skills that help form healthy consciences in our children and our students. One of the basics is the ability to see the difference between doing something intentionally and doing it accidentally. Those who study child development note that young children may not see a difference between knocking over something because of awkwardness and knocking over something with the intention of ruining it. There is a big difference between an excusable mistake and an intentional sin, and it is important for us to know the difference.
A second skill that is important to learn is the process of reparation. One simple example of this process is to have the child who spilled or broke something clean up the mess. In the classic situation of a child who steals candy from the store, there needs to be some way for the child to work toward paying back the price of the item.
Another important skill is what we used to call “a firm purpose of amendment.” How is this person going to show that he or she won’t kick his sibling at the table in the future? Without a willingness to improve a pattern of behavior, the request for forgiveness is hollow. This is how we can help our children and students become aware of how good moral habits are formed.
Perhaps the single most important skill is that of “loving the sinner, not the sin.” There are many ways we may need to show “tough love” when it comes to a lack of respect or another behavior that should not be tolerated, but the child must also understand that this discipline is because of love. In order for the reality of grace to make sense in our lives, we need to experience full acceptance from those we love.
When our middle son was younger, he and Kathy often would end up in confrontations, and at bedtime, she would have to remind him—and herself: “We hurt each other sometimes, don’t we? But our love is always stronger, isn’t it?”
In addition to helping our children and students learn how to forgive, it is essential that we apologize to them—when appropriate—so that they have the experience of granting forgiveness. This can be especially significant during the season of Lent, when we examine ways to respond to God’s grace and see how so often we fall short, therefore needing God’s and each other’s forgiveness.
We can help our students and our children understand the difference between accidents and evil intentions, what reparation looks like, and the importance of changing their patterns of moral behavior. We can help them realize that they are unconditionally loved. When a child’s actions are not loving and caring, we can seize that moment to help the child better appreciate the sacrament of reconciliation and God’s forgiving love.
Kathy and Mitch Finley have been speaking and writing about the domestic church for the past 30 years. Visit their website at mitchandkathyfinley.com.
For Catechists to Consider
1. Use stories and examples whenever possible with the students, asking them what they would do in a particular situation and why.
2. Model forgiveness in the classroom, perhaps by asking two students to work out their problems and come back to the group.
3. With older students, talk about examples of forgiveness in the world like Immaculée Ilibagiza and her testimony in the book, Left to Tell.
For Parents to Consider
1. Your example of apologizing and offering forgiveness is an important model for your children.
2. What helps people offer and receive forgiveness? What keeps people from offering or receiving forgiveness?
3. If appropriate or comfortable, tell about how you have hurt others and how you felt and how you made amends for what you did.
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