What should my forgiveness look like?

by Father Dale Kinzler

Father Dale Kinzler

One questioner writes: “Our son stole a lot of money from us. He has apologized, and we forgave him, but I don’t really feel I can trust him. What does forgiveness look like? Should I just move on and forget this happened?”

This situation reflects a reality that most of us have probably experienced in one form or another. It may not have been theft of money or property, but each of us have had a family member or friend sin against us, wounding the precious gift of trust in our relationship. Can we forgive the person who expresses sorrow, and can they regain our trust? How do we relate going forward?

In the Lord’s Prayer we petition our heavenly Father, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Our readiness to forgive others opens our heart to the forgiveness God readily offers us for our own sins against the very same family members and friends. Granted we are human and do not easily “forget” past offenses like theft of money by our own flesh and blood, but at least our questioner has made the conscious decision to forgive, insofar as the son did offer an apology with sincere expression of sorrow.

A key problem here is the broken trust, which is one of the natural effects of sin. How can we be sure the son will not turn around and steal again in the future? In the Sacrament of Reconciliation we find a parallel to this challenge. After we confess our sins to the priest, he invites us to pray an Act of Contrition, which includes these or similar words: “I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to amend my life (or to sin no more) and to avoid the near occasions of sin.”

Depending on how much money the son stole, it would be important for him to make some gesture of restitution. Can he return it, or repay in small quantities over the course of time? Our Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) indicates it is a matter of justice to do so insofar as possible:

“In virtue of commutative justice (property rights, paying debts, etc.), reparation for injustice committed requires the restitution of stolen goods to their owner. . . Those who, directly or indirectly, have taken possession of the goods of another, are obliged to make restitution of them, or to return the equivalent in kind or in money” (CCC 2412).

The repentance of Zacchaeus, responding to Jesus’ invitation to dine with him, accompanies his declaration, “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I shall restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8).

A parent, however, who is not the police or law enforcement, has the option of “writing off the debt” the son owes in justice. That prerogative, if acted upon, would be a noble act of kindness and mercy. It would be the kind of loving response shown by the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Returning with repentant heart, the son expected to be treated no better than a hired hand. Instead, his father prepares a feast for the one who was “dead and came to life again” (Luke 15:31).

In response to our questioner: If you still don’t feel you can trust your son, it may be because his behavior suggests he has not fully repented nor changed his modus operandi. He has some obligation on his part to earn your trust, to regain that which he damaged by the theft. He owes you that in order to help you “move on and forget this happened,” or at last to treat him as if he had not done it, even though you won’t forget it. On your part, forgiveness would include an invitation to visits and holiday meals, and whatever other family activities and events you would share with any of your other children.

Here again we find a parallel in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The priest assigns some realistic “penance,” either a prayer or relevant action for the penitent to perform. You might consider what action on the son’s part you would consider reasonable penance, to affirm his sorrow and improve your relationship. It could be some appropriate charitable work for you or other family members, one that you agree on.

In sum, each interaction of sin and forgiveness within the family presents a challenge and opportunity to renew relationships with the help of grace from our merciful Father in heaven.

Father Kinzler serves as the pastor of St. George’s Church in Cooperstown as well as pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Aneta; St. Olaf’s Church, Finley; and St. Lawrence’s Church, Jessie.

Editor’s Note: If you have a question about the Catholic faith and would like to submit a question for consideration in a future column, please send to news@fargodiocese.org with “Ask a Priest” in the subject line or mail to New Earth, 5201 Bishops Blvd. S, Suite. A, Fargo, ND 58104, Attn: Ask a Priest.