In a perfect world, family relationships would always be harmonious. There would be no quarrels, no clashes, and no disagreements. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world, and conflicts crop up even in that haven of peace and love we call family. We don’t mean to be mean, and we don’t intend to hurt. But in the course of our daily lives, we sometimes do things that are selfish and say words that are unkind. And we end up hurting those closest to our hearts—our parents, siblings, spouses, and children.
It is precisely because we all make mistakes that it is necessary to learn to seek and grant forgiveness, especially within the family. According to Richard Monteverde, a professional counselor, teacher, and career coach, forgiveness is essential for a family because it influences healthy relations and communication. “Admitting mistakes, saying sorry, and asking for and receiving forgiveness are important because these teach individuals emotional regulation, one of the most important character strengths in facilitating physical and mental health within the family.”
Pope Francis, in his General Audience at St. Peter’s Square on November 4, 2015 said: “One cannot live without seeking forgiveness, or at least, one cannot live at peace, especially in the family. We wrong one another every day. We must take into account these mistakes, due to our frailty and our selfishness.” Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta put it simply: “If we really want to love, we must learn how to forgive.”
All about apologies
Asking for forgiveness always requires courage, especially when we are the ones at fault. Making an apology is a serious matter and should be done with all sincerity. Monteverde explains that “saying sorry is nothing if the person is not able to realize the depth and breadth of a specific transgression.” Thus, it is recommended that parents allow space for their children to process things and to let them own up to their mistakes before they make an apology. Pressuring children to say sorry immediately once a transgression is committed would only lead them to compulsion, that is, apologizing for the sake of a significant other’s request.
Nevertheless, Pope Francis, in the above-mentioned address, particularly emphasized immediacy. What we are asked to do, he said, “is to promptly heal the wounds that we cause, to immediately reweave the bonds that break within the family. If we wait too long, everything becomes more difficult … If we learn to apologize promptly and to give each other mutual forgiveness, the wounds heal, the marriage grows stronger, and the family becomes an increasingly stronger home, which withstands the shocks of our smaller or greater misdeeds.” There is no need for a long speech, he added, “one caress and everything is over and one can start afresh. But do not end the day at war!”
A culture of forgiveness
Pope Francis described the family as “a great training ground for the mutual giving and forgiving without which no love can last for long.” In short, the values of self-giving and forgiveness should be nurtured first and foremost in the family. Here are three things to keep in mind to create a culture of forgiveness in your home.
First, speak graciously. Make the language of grace and manners part of your daily conversations. Be generous in saying “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me.” Don’t hesitate to say, “I love you,” “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you,” especially during moments of tension. Parents should be the first to honor each other and their children, both in words and actions and by not tolerating disrespectful behavior.
Second, show forgiveness in action. According to Monteverde, forgiveness is an abstract concept, and children may not be able to grasp its implications unless they see it with their very eyes. Parents should therefore model forgiveness in the family. One way to do this is by making moments of reconciliation visible. Instead of “hiding” apologies, let the family members know that the conflict has been resolved. This is particularly significant when the conflict is well known or has been witnessed by everyone.
Finally, teach God’s mercy. The key to teaching and modeling forgiveness is the realization that it is God who first forgives us—and lavishly so. When we are aware of how we constantly sin and how God generously forgives us, we have no reason to be unforgiving to others. Participating in the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a family, especially during Lent, can strengthen this realization. On a more frequent basis, the family can develop the habit of apologizing and making peace with each other at the end of each day.
When the hurts run deep
Often, because family members have so much deeper knowledge of, love for, and trust in each other, the hurts they inflict on one another are deeper, too. Deeply embedded issues negatively affect one’s physical and mental well-being, says Monteverde. To address such deeper hurts, family members should explore their issues together. In this way, negative thoughts and feelings are released, forgiveness can be asked and given, and those involved can move on to improve the relationship. Families may also consult professional counselors or psychologists, especially when the issues are specially grave, complicated, and traumatic.
The Bible itself contains accounts of some really serious family conflicts: Adam blamed Eve for his disobedience; Jacob cheated his brother Esau of his birthright; and Cain killed his brother Abel out of jealous anger. Among these Biblical family feuds, however, the story of Joseph and his brothers stands out because, despite the great suffering Joseph had to endure because of his brothers’ jealousy, he chose to forgive them and by doing so reunited their family. Their story highlights the fact that even in the worst circumstances, forgiveness is not impossible.
Pope Francis further said in his address that “the capacity to forgive and to seek forgiveness is part of the vocation and the mission of the family,” and that “practicing forgiveness not only saves families from divisiveness” but also enables them to help make society a less cruel place. “If we learn to live this way in the family,” he said, “we can also do so outside, wherever we may be. … And it is crucial that, in a sometimes pitiless society, there be places, such as the family, in which to learn to forgive one another.”