I was 32 years old, standing in front of the altar of a Catholic Church, tears pouring down my cheeks as I realized with incredible gratitude how many men and women had laid down their lives to protect and defend the Church so that I could return home when at last I was ready to appreciate her. It took years of me walking in and out of those doors, leaving and returning, before my heart was fully ready to accept her teachings and to trust in her ways. Now, here I was, having given my heart for good to her keeping so that she could teach me how to better love my heavenly Father and to follow in the example of Christ. That moment I felt my Father’s unconditional love for me, a love that was willing and continued to be willing, to keep the doors open.
Keeping the door open means graciously accepting a repentant child without throwing in an “I told you so” for good measure. “I told you so” only rubs in the pain of their mistake and adds insult to injury. They know you told them. They know you tried to warn them. They see their failure, that’s why they have returned. The “I told you so” does nothing for either of you, and only serves to cause your child more pain.
The Catholic Church perfectly models what it means to keep the doors open. Even if she must bar them from a full participation in the sacramental life, as in the case of ex-communication, she still encourages her children to continue coming to Mass and to seek out their Father’s forgiveness so that they can eventually be fully reconciled. She waits with joyful expectation for the reunion, and she rejoices at their return.
When your child has hurt you the most, when they have done their worst, this is when you are most tempted to shut them out of your life and to close the door on the pain they have caused you for good. It is at this moment that you prove your unconditional love for your child by choosing, instead, to keep that door open and to continue to pursue a relationship with them. That unconditional love, a love which does not change because it is based solidly on your choices rather than your feelings and is not impacted by the negative choices the child makes, is like a beacon that shines in the darkness beckoning your child and helping them to find their way back home.
Forgiveness and ReconciliationAnd so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. – Matthew 12:31
Recently, I made a mistake. My mistake weighed heavily on my heart and on my mind. I tried everything I could think of – except the one thing I should have done first – to fix that mistake on my own. I did not go to the person who had been harmed by my mistake and seek forgiveness and reconciliation because I was too ashamed to ask for it. As a result of my refusal, my husband was driven to despair, and my children nearly lost their place to live. Finally, I was pushed by the Holy Spirit to admit my mistake to the person I had harmed and to seek out forgiveness. The forgiveness was given without hesitation. It had been there all along, but I couldn't receive it because I hadn't been willing to ask for it.
As a parent, the Catholic Church has only one kind of sin she cannot forgive and that is the sin of refusing forgiveness. If we, as her children, refuse to accept the gift of her forgiveness then we cannot be reconciled to her. If your own children refuse to accept the gift of your forgiveness, you cannot give it to them until they are ready to repent and to fully reconcile themselves.
Times for Tough LoveIf he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. – Matthew 18:17
Our Holy Mother Church does have times when she shuts fast her doors to her children. She does this, not to harm them, but to help them understand the gravity of their sin and the true harm they have done in committing that sin. It is done when the sins of her children are putting the lives and salvation of others in direct danger. Even here, though, the promise is that as soon as the child has repented and shown him or herself to be willing to forsake that sin and to once again be obedient, the doors will be opened wide and the child restored to the family.
This is important to understand. Keeping the door open does NOT mean that we allow our children to do whatever they please whenever they please without consequences. There should always be consequences for the choices they make. Even in the case of the prodigal son, though the son was welcomed back home with joy and celebration, that did not mean that the child received another share of the inheritance. That child had already spent his inheritance. The brother who had been obedient would now inherit whatever the father had to give. What it does mean is that when they have shown true repentance, we are there for them, ready to take them back in and to be there for them during the hard times they must go through in order to make amends for their mistake.
If your child has made choices that put the family in danger, such as abusing drugs or alcohol, being abusive to you or to his siblings, you must not allow this to continue. This is a time for shutting fast the doors. This is a time for tough love. Tough love is about allowing your child to face fully the consequences of his or her choices without shielding them so that, hopefully, they can see just how damaging those choices are and choose to make the changes that will allow them to come back home. This is one of the most difficult things for a parent to do, but the alternative is to allow your child to continue on a path that will ultimately lead them to death and destruction.
Keeping the doors open in the midst of tough love is about making that promise to your child that when they are ready to come home and follow the rules you will be waiting to receive them. It is about letting them know that there is no mistake so big that it can ever stop you from loving them, except to forsake that love by refusing it. It is, above all, about always being willing to believe the very best of them and to keep hope for a better future alive no matter how dark a path they may choose to walk.
Thank you for joining us for this chapter of Catholic Parenting: What the Catholic Church Teaches Us About Parenting. If you are just joining us, you can find the introduction and the first eight chapters by following the link above. I hope you will join us tomorrow for chapter 10, Owning Failures and Mistakes.
If you have a comment, want to add something, think I missed something, loved it, liked it, hated it, or thought it needed a change, please leave a comment below and let me know. I'm always listening, and thanks again for reading.