How to Forgive our Fathers: By Making Jesus’ Prayers Our Own

This post is for all those who struggle with their relationship with their fathers. Sometimes, when Father’s Day comes around, we are reminded more acutely that the pain of these relationships or non-relationships plays like uncomfortable background noise in our lives.

I’m no expert in the field of human relationships, but I do know this: As Christians we get to tap into a power that it bigger than ourselves. It’s called grace. And the graces we receive in and through the sacraments, beginning with our Baptism, allow God’s life and love to be activated in us. As Christians we also experience on-going conversion… which is another way of saying, we learn to cooperate with God and God’s graces more and more as we continually grow closer to Him.

So what does all of this have to do with our fathers? With grace and time, we can learn, to forgive our fathers (or our mothers, or anyone significant to us) thanks to the incredible love of God that unfolds in our lives through on-going conversion.

Frank Weathers, at his blog Why I Am a Catholic, whose parents were divorced when he was young, explains that forgiveness of his father flowed in the days that followed his conversion to Catholicism…

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 invited my dad to spend the weekend with me during this time…

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…

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.

Read his entire post.

This is a fact: the deeper you come to know Jesus, the more that relationship will invite you to forgive those who have hurt you. Forgiving them doesn’t change the facts of what happened between you, or make the gravity of their mistakes or offenses — or ours — any less. For example, it doesn’t take a felony against love and reduce it to a misdemeanor. But it changes us. Grace allows us to choose to leave the judgment of the offenses, or the pain, in the hands of God, and allows us to cling instead to the mercy of God. Mercy and grace restores some measure of what we’ve lost by helping us let go and move on. Mercy combined with forgiveness helps us transcend hurts.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe, in her column in The Pilot, reflects on this.

There comes a point in our lives when we can no longer hold our parents responsible for what we’ve become or haven’t. Even the very worst of situations is within the reach of transforming mercy. While forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean reconciliation in every case, it can mean peace.

When I left home for college, I packed a lot more than I thought I had. I took the hurt and rejection of fatherlessness with me. It didn’t take long to notice the elephant in my dorm room. By Thanksgiving, I had found my dad’s Florida address and phone number. I knew I had to forgive him.

That phone call was at once one of the most difficult and liberating things I have ever done. Talking with him after 10 years of absence didn’t make the hurt disappear, and didn’t end up giving me the father I had needed. What it did do was enable me to let go of unmet needs, broken promises, and reasonable expectations.

Perhaps you or someone you know needs to forgive, or ask forgiveness from a father. Maybe there are fathers, too, who need to be forgiven. Whatever regrets or hurts, whatever disagreements or disputes, whatever obstacles there are between children and their fathers, it is not impossible to set them aside. You don’t even have to trust your dad to do it. You can trust your heavenly father, and have faith in Him, instead.

Read it all.

Wolfe’s final point is significant… “we have to trust our heavenly father and have faith in Him, instead.”

How do we do that?

What if I can’t trust my Heavenly Father because I’ve had a damaged or broken relationship with an earthly father?

I talk about the “how” in Chapter Three of Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious: and while that is a book largely written for women, one theme in this particular chapter for everyone: JESUS IS THE WAY TO THE FATHER.

Here’s one suggestion for “how” we can start to trust our Heavenly Father: thanks to our baptism, we can make the powerful prayers of Jesus our own.

Jesus entered into the world that we might enter into relationship with God the Father. We all need to know who our Father is. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).

Maybe you’ve heard that before. Sometimes when we hear something over and over again, we take it for granted. Notice the language of fatherhood, love, and life: “For God so loved . . . that he gave his only Son. . . . Everyone who believes in him should . . . have eternal life.

Jesus reveals the personal and unique love God has for us and his universal plan of love for the salvation of the world. Jesus taught us about God in the ways we really need to experience him most—as a father.

Jesus knows some of us harbor reticence when it comes to fatherhood. Still Jesus teaches the necessity of our knowing the Father: “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30). He reveals the Father by what he did and said. He never stops using examples in parables about fathers or praying to the Father himself.

The gospels record Jesus saying the word father over 130 times. Coming to know the Father in heaven is not optional for a Christian. Jesus repairs the rift opened in the days of Adam and Eve when the first human relationships with the Father were fractured. Most important, Jesus instructed us to call God “Our Father” in The Lord’s Prayer, which is one of the most basic prayers in Christianity: Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name” (Mt 6:9; emphasis added).

Jesus taught us how to enter into his prayer, using his words, when he taught us to pray to our Father. Jesus shares the love of his Father so that we, too, might enter into conversations and prayers—a loving relationship—with the Father like he did. Ultimately, “the Lord’s Prayer reveals us to ourselves at the same time that it reveals the Father to us” (CCC, 2783).

The gospels are filled with Jesus’s prayers to the Father, a Father that yearns to love us, not disappoint or hurt us, a loving Father who understands the baggage we may be carrying. Let’s make Jesus’s words our own. Learning the words of the Son’s heart can help heal our daughter-hearts.

The image of the Good Shepherd soothes my daughter-heart. Jesus describes the tender, committed care that he offers his sheep, a care in union with his Father:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. (Jn 10:27–30)

No one is father as God is Father. If someone has treated you badly, such that you cannot understand the gift of the Father’s love, remember that “no one is able to  snatch . . .  [you] out of the Father’s hand.” His love for you has never wavered, even if you have been unable to know it, see it, or understand it. Jesus’s word guarantees it.

We can make this our prayer, too: no one can snatch me out of the Father’s hand.

To trust Jesus is to trust the Father.

When we address God as our Father, as Jesus has taught, we are moved toward trusting the Father. When we refer to God as “our Father,” we do two important things. First, we declare him as the origin of everything in our lives. Second, we trust the goodness and loving care that a father bestows. (See CCC, 239.)

When Jesus was finished with his work on earth, he charged his followers to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (See Mt 28:18–20.)

In the graces of Baptism, God became a father to me…

The graces of Baptism empower me to make Jesus’s words my own…

In Baptism we meet the fatherhood of God, blessed and dignified as beloved daughters. Unfortunately, it is a gift we can fail to recognize or take for granted. Imagine owning a costly heirloom worth millions, but having no idea of its value because it is locked away in a chest and forgotten. For many of us, that treasure is our Baptism, specifically the knowledge that we are God’s beloved daughters. That knowledge is the key that unlocks many graces.

 If we ponder that, relying on the graces we’ve already received in Baptism, we will begin to reclaim the girl who may be carrying around a lot of angst and rejection where fatherhood is concerned.

Baptized Christians utter the word Father six times in the Nicene Creed. There’s a reason. We are blessed daughters standing before a magnificent, loving, all-knowing Father…

Here the fatherhood of God heals our hurts. Lest we think this is some kind of romanticized vision of love, think again. It is rugged and strongly tempered in power, yet gentle and approachable enough to trust. The Father’s love is sturdy enough to enable us not only to thrive despite our hurts, but also to transcend them.

How can we transcend hurts?  You already know—by deeply entering into the prayers of Jesus and making them your own. Jesus and our Baptism give us direct access to our heavenly Father. You’ve seen it with the Our Father; now take it a step deeper. Jesus prayed at his crucifixion amidst complete suffering. He forgave his persecutors, his detractors, enemies, friends who betrayed or left him, and those who forcibly put him to death. And he forgave us even before we came to be: “And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them’” (Lk 23:34).

With grace, we can forgive in the name of Jesus, with Jesus, who is one with the Father. I can forgive each person who has hurt me, even the worst offenders. I can even forgive myself. “Father, forgive them.” Father, forgive me.

The name of the Father is the name Jesus used when his deepest wounds were open and bleeding. It’s the name we can call on to heal us of wounds we can see and the ones we keep hidden. It’s the name that brings our ongoing conversion.

[More details about my book here.]

This Sunday at Mass, on Father’s Day, when I stand to pray the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, I will be remembering my own healing and growth in these areas, and pray that we can all enter into those prayers more deeply that they may bear good fruit in our lives.

Let us pray for one another. And pray for all the fathers out there too.


1 comment on “How to Forgive our Fathers: By Making Jesus’ Prayers Our Own

  1. “This is a fact: the deeper you come to know Jesus, the more that relationship will invite you to forgive those who have hurt you.” I see this as the spiritual reality that all our human relationships flow from our relationship with God. So healing of our father image, all those unrealized expectations, resentments and lost opportunities, heals our brokenness from God and from our fathers.

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