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The courage to say ‘I’m sorry’

Kate Barrett | Thursday, November 11, 2010

“Declan Sullivan was entrusted to our care, and we failed to keep him safe. We at Notre Dame — and ultimately I, as President — are responsible. Words cannot express our sorrow to the Sullivan family and to all involved.”

With these simple, straightforward words Fr. John Jenkins offered a poignant and courageous apology to the Sullivans, and indeed to the world, for his open statement flew through the Internet and around a wide cross-section of news outlets almost immediately. Perhaps from a cynical point of view, his initiative was somewhat foolhardy, opening himself up to blame or even litigation; or, as sometimes happens, others would ascribe ulterior motives even to his most authentic words.

How many of us have ever had to make such a public and painful apology? Though any truly heartfelt apology demands of us honesty, humility and a genuine desire to make amends, thankfully most — or all — of us will find that we never confront the need to accept responsibility for another’s death. In such a situation, we cannot offer any recompense, any compensation for who and what Declan’s parents and siblings and friends have lost. At best we might console ourselves, as perhaps Fr. Jenkins has, in the hope that such an acknowledgement could bring some moment of comfort to those who loved Declan most dearly.

In Declan’s death, we captured a glimpse of what we should all know, but mostly forget: how infinitely precious is each human life. We’ve probably all been in conversations over the last two weeks in which we or others have commented on our new attentiveness to one another, on the blessings of simply living in this community, on our appreciation for friendships and family members. We can’t live every moment of every day in the kind of intensely heightened awareness we’ve experienced for the last 14 days. But we can certainly spend the time to recall daily, and be grateful for, the gift of our lives and the people with whom God has surrounded us. We can certainly spend the time to recall daily, and be grateful for, the fact that God at every moment loves us more than we can imagine. Can this two-fold awareness allow us to be brave — even foolish — in the kindness with which we treat each other, in our readiness to forgive freely? Can we be brave to the point of foolishness in our willingness to reach out more generously, in the humility required to make a genuine apology when needed?

For maybe we have something to learn here: that reconciliation might contribute to healing more than will retribution or revenge; that ties forged in the midst of sorrow might bring us more consolation than will the hot despair of blame or vengeance. An apology doesn’t signal an end, but a beginning to what is so commonly called a “new normal,” and for the Notre Dame community, the beginning of a new relationship with a family and a son of Our Lady who will be a part of our lives in a unique, inseparable way that we never could have predicted as recently as the morning of Oct. 27, 2010.

As our worship calendar winds to an end over the next two Sundays, the Scriptures we will hear proclaimed turn their attention to the end-times, to what the world might be like when God returns to realign our misguided priorities, to clear away and destroy all that keeps us from him. Yet again we can believe and take hope in the certainty in the midst of grief, of confusion and even in the midst of the trials which will attend the end of the world, that for those who put their trust in God, “not a hair on your head will be destroyed.” Even in events we cannot possibly comprehend, in decisions and moments we would transform again and again if only given the opportunity, we must seek to find the truth and the love of God through his promise of eternal life; through our belief that God knows and shares in human sorrow; through our trust that even in death God remains with each one of us, loving us both intimately and infinitely.

Even when we know without a doubt that we must apologize, we can always think of reasons not to say we’re sorry, most of them based on fear: of rejection, of renewed anger, even fear of a lawsuit or other recrimination. If we have the courage to offer a heartfelt apology, however, we may have taken the first step, however tiny, toward healing a rupture, toward including rather than excluding God in the movements of our lives and relationships, toward letting the immeasurable mercy of God transform our lives as individuals and as a community.

This week’s Faithpoint is written by Kate Barrett, director of the Emmaus Program. She can be reached at Katharine.S.Barrett.28@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.