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The family as forgiving community: leaving legacy of love to future generations Print
Guest column
Thursday, Apr. 06, 2017 -- 12:00 AM
Robert Enright

Sixth in a series of seven articles on forgiveness.

It is so special that the Second Vatican Council referred to the family as "the domestic church" (Lumen Gentium #11).

On the Feast of the Annunciation this year (March 25), Pope Francis, in a talk to 27 heads of government, stated, "Europe finds new hope when she . . . invests in the family, which is the first and fundamental cell of society."

Family: crossroads of our legacy

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, it is in the family that children learn to love.

It is so sad that the family also is the first place where too many children (and adults) learn conflict and division and discord.

The family is the crossroads of our legacy. When we die, will we leave behind in our family more love or more division?

Few people seem to reflect on the seriousness of this question. Our love, if planted deeply in the family, can be passed on for years so that our children's children's children are still carrying the love in their hearts which we helped plant, even though this future generation never will meet most of us.

At the same time, those future generations of children could be carrying in their own hearts the anger and discord which we left in the family as our legacy.

Which will you choose: to leave a legacy of love or division in your family?

Forgiveness: legacy of love

Forgiveness, the learning and continual practicing of it within the family, can be one of the ways, when we die, of leaving the gift of love to future generations. Yet, time is of the essence. We must not tarry in this goal of leaving love in the family.

One way to start -- today -- is to consider making your family a Forgiving Community in which you: a) value forgiving others; b) practice it; c) practice it some more; d) discuss the importance of forgiving in the family and demonstrate it for others to see and hear; and e) create a norm that it is good to have forgiveness as a special part of the family tradition.

Family forgiveness gathering

One way to achieve these goals is to commit to what I call a family forgiveness gathering. This can be for as little as 10 minutes a week. It need not be formal.

One can use teachable-moments, such as when one family member brings up in conversation that he or she was treated unfairly by someone (outside or inside the family) that day or that week. Such teachable-moments lend themselves to questions such as these:

• What happened? In other words, what were some of the specifics of the injustice?

• How did you go about solving the problem? (This shows everyone that when we forgive, we also seek justice.)

• Have you thought about forgiving the person? What do you mean by forgiving? How do we go about forgiving? (A first step is to commit to doing no harm to the one who was unfair).

• Let us take a broader look at the one who hurt you. Yes, he/she acted badly. Is this person made in the image and likeness of God? Are you made in the image and likeness of God? Do you both share this?

I am not asking this for you to excuse the person, but I am asking this so that your heart might be softened a little in forgiveness toward this person.

Because young ones are not always open to sharing what is on their heart, the parents can start with stories or by watching a film together in which there is conflict to discuss, including how the characters might use the opportunity to forgive.

In these brief encounters you will be showing that: a) forgiveness is important (as is the quest for justice); b) you as the questioner value forgiveness; c) one can take a concrete step in forgiving by doing no harm; and d) one can take a broad perspective on the injuring person by seeing how God sees him/her.

A legacy of love or a legacy of anger . . . it is up to you now. Which will you choose this day? Which will you choose for the future generations of family?


Robert Enright is a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, author, and founder of the International Forgiveness Institute.