To Forgive My Father…

-Feast of St. Anthony of Padua

Being a child of divorce, I’m not used to thinking warm and fuzzy thoughts about Father’s Day. My parents marriage collapsed around the time I was five years old. Now my dad will tell you that when he had the affair that led him to decide to divorce my mother, it was the biggest mistake of his life.

But that is hindsight and the rubble from three more wrecked marriages doing the talking. That, and a contrite and humbled heart.

One of my first memorable acts upon becoming a Catholic was to forgive my father for leaving his wife and family behind. It took me a few months to get around to it, though.

Prior to my becoming Catholic, I had boasted that I would never forgive him. And not just to myself, but to others, publicly, and loudly.

Break your promise and leave your family? I just couldn’t see how someone could do such a thing.  And Pharisee that I was, planting the flag of prideful honor on the hill of righteous indignation came pretty easy to me.

But this all changed back in the Summer of 2008.

My wife and children were in California on vacation (two weeks ahead of me) visiting her family. I stayed at home, working during the weekdays at my job downtown, and swinging by the house during lunch breaks checking up on folks who were putting a new driveway in for us. At night I would listen to Cistercian chants I’d discovered, and read and pray while the house was quiet.

Not once did I turn on the television or radio. Peace!

I invited my dad to spend the weekend with me during this time. He’s very skilled in making things from scratch, see, and I figured (correctly) that he could help me make an insulated attic stairs cover box, which would keep hot air out of the upstairs during the summer, and cold air out during the winter.

You see, I needed to tell him that I was a Catholic now, and I figured getting together with him was a good way to broach the subject.

Certainly he knew that I had married a Catholic. He’d witnessed the event of our Nuptial Mass nineteen years earlier. But I had never converted to the faith either. Just like I had loudly and publicly said I’d never forgive my father for leaving us (not when he was around to hear it, you understand), I had loudly said to him on more than one occasion that I’d never become a Catholic either.

Oh, he probably already knew, as my sister had attended the Easter Vigil and either her, or my brother, might have told him during a phone call. But I wanted to tell him, and tell him in person.

I thought it would really be a big deal, but it wasn’t. During a lunch break while we were working, we were talking about being Christians, as he himself had undergone a reconversion of his own. I was reading Pope Benedict’s  book Jesus of Nazareth at the time, and I shared a few things I’d learned there.

Then I just up and told him that I was now a Catholic.

I was not blogging about my conversion at that time, but I gave him the shortened version of the series of posts about how I was called to the Church. I told him all about RCIA, etc.

The mountain I thought I would climb to make this revelation turned out to be a mole hill. Or perhaps with faith the size of a mustard seed, the mountain was just leveled for me. Either way, it was a relief.

My dad went to his car and brought me a few things he wanted me to have. One of these items was an envelope full of photographs that he wanted to give me. They were duplicates of photos of me from various time periods, including when I was a wee tot and we were still together as a family.

As I was leafing through them, my heart burned within me, and I just felt compelled to tell him the simple words that mean so much, but which are rarely said. Earlier that year, he had had a mild heart attack, and there being no time like the present, before I could stop myself I said,

“Dad, I just want you to know that I forgive you for leaving us.”

Of course, by the time I got those last three words out, my voice had broken and the tears were flowing, and we embraced each other much as I figure it was like when the prodigal son was embraced by his dad. The roles seemed reversed to me, but the effect was the same.

Cathartic reconciliation.

“Son, I really needed to hear that from you. I am so sorry.”

I firmly believe that this never would have happened if I hadn’t become a Catholic. If I hadn’t been praying the Liturgy of the Hours, where the psalms worked on softening my hardened heart to prepare me for this moment. If I hadn’t been saying the Lord’s Prayer daily, saying the words “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

It became a call to action, you see. What good does it do to say the words, but not to do what they say? St. Anthony of Padua knows.

By forgiving my dad for all that could have been, but never was, this unexpected moment turned out to be the best Father’s Day present we both ever received.

Because Alexander Pope got it right when he penned the following thoughts,

Good-nature and good-sense must ever join;

To err is human, to forgive, divine.

In the same work later on, the poet also says, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” But in our case it was the fools who feared to tread where the angels ably led.

Be not afraid to drink the cup of reconciliation with your estranged dad.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Forgive him while there is still time.


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8 Responses to To Forgive My Father…

  1. Manny says:

    Very touching. Great story. Lots of wisdom there. I’m glad it worked out.


  2. Rick Connor says:

    This is great. I wish I had that reconciliation with my father before he died. Although I’ve forgiven him in my mind and heart, I still wish I had that conversation with him when he could have responded.


  3. Bill Brandon says:

    If you have never seen the movie “Smoke Signals”, you may never have seen this poem. If you have seen the movie, you probably can’t read it without tears.


  4. I have not seen it…yet. Thanks.


  5. Pat Gohn says:

    Thank you Frank. That’s a very moving testimony. May you have a happy Father’s Day… in more ways than one!


  6. Bill Brandon says:

    It’s a movie that has lots of funny moments, but it is also very powerful. You will never think of John Wayne or your father in the same way again.


  7. Ann Couper-Johnston says:

    My dear dad once asked me what Catholics believed about the Eucharist, so I told him, straight. His reply was: “In that case it’s even more ridiculous than I thought.”


    When he died the family emphasised his (very) Protestant faith, which had made him the man of integrity he was. My sister made a sort of apology along the lines of – sorry if this is hard for you but it’s what he was and we are trying to be true to him. My aunt had a much better comment to make, which I share with you for the consolation of all of us who have families that can’t understand our Faith. She said: “He will understand you now in a way he never could before.”

    When my mother died recently I fancifully imagined he might have greeted her in heaven with a somewhat surprised expression and said quietly: “You know something – Annie was right.” We all see through a glass darkly this side of heaven ….

    My mother told me, decades after the event, that my father had once been tempted to have an affair, but had resisted. As he put it: “I couldn’t let you down and I couldn’t let God down.” Nobody ever suspected a thing and we would never have known, but for my mum asking my dad if he’d ever been tempted. I thank God for his principled integrity, grounded in his Christian faith, which saved us a heartache we never suspected possible.


  8. Danalee Lavelle says:

    How Do We Forgive Our Fathers? by Dick Lourie*

    How do we forgive our Fathers?
    Maybe in a dream
    Do we forgive our Fathers for leaving us too often or forever
    when we were little?

    Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage
    or making us nervous
    because there never seemed to be any rage there at all.

    Do we forgive our Fathers for marrying or not marrying our Mothers?
    For Divorcing or not divorcing our Mothers?

    And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?
    Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning
    for shutting doors
    for speaking through walls
    or never speaking
    or never being silent?

    Do we forgive our Fathers in our age or in theirs
    or their deaths
    saying it to them or not saying it?

    If we forgive our Fathers what is left?

    * This poem is read during the last scene in the movie “Smoke Signals”. It was
    originally published in a longer version titled “Forgiving Our
    Fathers” in a book of poems titled Ghost Radio published by Hanging
    Loose Press in 1998


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