You may recall the "Love Story" catchphrase, "Love means never having to say you're sorry."
Actually, that's not true.
There is no such thing as a relationship that no longer requires attention, work, and effort. Any relationship on auto-pilot is a relationship in decline. And part of the work required in any relationship is the readiness to apologize when that is called for.
And this starts, of course, with our relationship with God Himself. That's why we have Lent -- a season in which we perfect our ability to recognize when we have offended God, and make amends through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
But we cannot love the God we do not see if we fail to love the brothers and sisters we do see. And therefore, our ability to say "I'm sorry" to one another is essential to the love of God and neighbor.
I always try to follow the lessons I learned from my mentor, Cardinal John O'Connor, who ordained me and released me to do my fulltime work with Priests for Life. Every Christmas night, after his televised Midnight Mass from St. Patrick's Cathedral, he would offer a heartfelt apology to anyone whom he had offended in the course of his ministry as Archbishop of New York.
The first time I heard this, I wondered if it didn't soften his clear and uncompromising adherence to and proclamation of the truth of the Catholic Faith and its moral demands. After all, Scripture tells us to preach the word "in season and out of season, welcome and unwelcome" (see 2 Tim. 4:2)
But it does not soften or compromise that fidelity at all, because an essential element of that truth and those moral demands is that we truly seek the good of those who hear us, and those we serve, and that we realize our own imperfections, sins, and failures as we seek to carry out that service. We know that the Word we proclaim is perfect, but the messengers are not. One of my favorite images that captures this is "the golden coin in the dirty hand." We hold and pass on the golden coin of doctrinal and moral truth, but we ourselves are soiled by sin.
So yes, love and fidelity sometimes require us to say, "I'm sorry." We apologize -- not for the difficult demands of the Gospel or for the sting that the truth often brings us -- but rather for our own carelessness in bearing witness to that truth.
And we must never confuse the two. To apologize for the Gospel itself would be scandalous. Our hearts must always say with Saint Paul, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel" (Romans 1:15). And we must never lack the courage to be "offensive," as Jesus Himself was, in bearing witness to truth and justice.
As we do this, we also follow the Biblical admonition, "Clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for: 'God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble'" (1 Peter 5:5). And therefore I came to look forward each year to Cardinal O'Connor's heartfelt apology, and I began doing the same thing in the parish where I was serving.
So, as I was preparing for this year's Lenten journey, and trying to figure out what kind of penance would most benefit me, I decided it would not be to give up chocolate (which I like) or raw clams (which I like even more!). I decided, instead, that it would be to say "I'm sorry" more often to all whom I serve in the course of my ministry.
In fact, in the coming weeks of Lent, I would like to specify particular groups of people whom I may have inadvertently offended in the course of doing my work -- or maybe because in particular instances I failed to do my work as I should. Often I feel that my busy-ness doesn't allow me to respond to people as rapidly as I should -- and that will be the first group of people to whom I will apologize. I will put separate messages here on my website, and I ask that we all deepen our efforts to seek reconciliation with God, and with one another, and intensify our prayers for each other, so that when we do hurt each other -- even when we don't mean to -- we may quickly do what love, truth and fidelity require us to do, and say "I'm sorry."
Have a Blessed Lent, everybody!
Part Two: Lenten Apologies
Part Three: Lenten Apologies