Late Monday night, my father-in-law died. A few hours prior on the same day, my family and I celebrated our daughter’s 12th baptismal anniversary. He died on the same day we celebrate our daughter’s entrance into new life in Christ and His Church. We now pray for his entrance into eternal life.
It is hard to grieve the loss of a man I tragically barely knew. My husband has struggled to articulate this to friends and priests who have been praying these past two weeks for a happy and holy death for his dad. It’s hard to explain and understand what it is like to grieve someone who has been a ghost for decades.
The truth is, my husband’s dad chose to reject and walk away from him and most of his other nine children years ago. I have grieved the loss of a relationship with his dad for my husband, our daughter, and me. My only hope now is that in the next life all will be healed and reconciled in Christ.
Even though we have not had a relationship with my husband’s dad throughout our entire marriage, I was blessed to watch the Lord work in tremendous ways in my husband. It is through my husband’s witness that I have come to a deeper understanding of our call to forgiveness and the supernatural gifts Christ’s gives to us when we step towards others in forgiveness.
Two years ago, it became clear that his dad was going to die sooner rather than later. He had developed Parkinson’s, dementia, and had ignored treatable skin cancer to such an extent that it started tunneling into his ear, and eventually, fatally, into his brain this year. My husband became increasingly concerned about his father’s soul and the need for his dad to reconcile with family members he had hurt before he died and, even though he was a practicing Catholic, to God. The only way my husband could begin this process was to step painfully into the breach and to fully forgive his father and to tell him as much.
One afternoon, my husband made his way to his father’s hospital room. It wasn’t easy for him after barely seeing him in decades. It is only by God’s grace that we find the strength to put aside what we are due in justice and charity in order to turn towards others who have deeply hurt us with mercy. He wanted to go alone, so he could have an honest discussion with his father. I stayed behind and prayed the Rosary and interceded for him throughout the visit.
This moment is one of the most powerful I have experienced in our marriage. I saw the raw power of God’s love surge through my husband. I saw him set aside his own pains for the sake of his father. He sat across from his father in the hospital room and told him that he forgave him. His dad did not understand what he had done to him over the years. It didn’t matter. That wasn’t the point. Forgiveness must be unconditionally and freely given as Christ has given it to us and that is what he told his dad.
After extending this forgiveness to his father, his dad asked him if there was anything he wanted from him. My husband told him no. All he wanted was for his dad to reconcile with those he has hurt and to be fully reconciled to God. My husband’s sole concern was the salvation of his father’s soul and the healing of others who have been hurt. His forgiveness was pure gift.
As Catholics, this is the level of forgiveness we are called to. I can’t claim to have mastered it, yet. I am still weak and struggle to forgive seventy times seven times. I was able to witness the power of this level of forgiveness in my husband’s example, which started a process of healing in my own life, as well as the lives of other members of his family. It didn’t fix everything and there are deep, gaping wounds that have been left in the wake of his father’s death, but the Lord started to open seeds my husband’s dying-to-self planted.
Death is the ultimate equalizer. All of us will die. The question we are faced with each day as we experience the pain and sins of others, on top of the reality of our own sinfulness and weaknesses, is how do we want to live? Do we want to allow the rejections we endure at the hands of others—especially those closest to us—to stifle our willingness and ability to love others? Do we want to cling to bitter resentment, which turns us into shells of people? Do we want to join in Lucifer’s non serviam because we don’t want to be crucified on the Cross of forgiveness?
It is not easy to love. Love is not love without the Cross. It is not love without sacrifice and suffering. The Lord shows us that forgiveness means going all the way to the Cross for others. Even those people who repeatedly sin against us or reject us. In this case, even when a father abandons his post and does not choose to love those God has given to him. A man we hope died fully reconciled to God through the Sacraments he received and a full surrender of the past.
Forgiveness in many ways is a crucifixion. It’s a willingness to die to our desire for justice. It’s a willingness to set aside the hope of reconciliation in this life with those who choose to reject us. It’s a willingness to not become hard-hearted in the face of abuse, abandonment, and rejection. It’s a willingness to unleash love where there is no love. St. John of the Cross said: “Where there is no love, put love and you will find love.” My husband found love when he united himself to Christ Crucified and forgave his father with his whole heart.
Forgiveness does not ignore injuries and injustice. It doesn’t mean that relationships will be mended in this life. That is a hope in some cases we have to wait for until the next life. Forgiveness means letting go of the debt another owes us. This is exactly what Christ did for us on the Cross. This is what it means to love as Christ loves. We are called to be crucified in love for our enemies. Sometimes our enemies were once people we loved very deeply or who were supposed to love and protect us, but for various reasons turned away from us.
All of us have people in our lives we need to forgive—me included. The path to forgiveness is not typically immediate for deeper wounds. We often need prayer, fasting, and the Sacraments in order to open ourselves to the graces Christ wants to give to us that will allow us to forgive. As good and holy as they may be, we also need to let go of our dreams and hopes for relationships with people who reject us.
My husband had to let go of his dream of having a loving, close, and supportive father in order to forgive his dad. The Lord provided in other ways through an elderly neighbor who my husband took care of before his sudden death two years ago who saw him as a son. The Lord also provided his own foster father as a father to him.
St. Joseph has been a true spiritual father to my husband. St. Joseph’s intercession and loving spiritual fatherhood has brought tremendous healing to our family. My husband found the father he needs in St. Joseph. A father whose silent strength, obedience, and love helped him forgive his earthly father and who helped lead him more deeply towards the Eternal Father.
The Lord wanted him to know that St. Joseph is his father by providing a gift on the day he found out his earthly father had died. As I walked into daily Mass, a gentleman we know walked up to me with a book on St. Joseph and a St. Joseph chaplet. He didn’t know my husband’s dad had died during the night. St. Joseph wanted my husband to know that he is with him on this day and every day. The Lord always provides when the world and weaknesses of men fail.
Death will come for all of us. The Gospel reading for Tuesday—the day we found out about his death—focused on the thief coming in the night and that we we do not know the hour. We have a limited time on this earth to learn to love as Christ loves. In order to become saints, we must learn how to heroically forgive the deepest of hurts. My husband has been a witness to the redemptive power of forgiveness offered in the image of Christ Crucified and through his witness God has been glorified.
Today I pray for the repose of the soul of my father-in-law. I hope that he is rejoicing with the angels and saints, or if he is in Purgatory, that his purification will soon hasten him towards the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.