The Word Among Us

June 2008 Issue

“I’m Sorry”

When Apologies Aren't Enough

By: Robert Kennedy

"But you do this all the time," my wife said.

I had just apologized for buying some extra items on a run to the grocery store. They were things we really needed, even if they weren't on her list—chocolate chip ice cream and cookies and snack nuts . . . .

"I send you to the store for a few items, but you always spend twice as much as I planned and come back with a lot of junk. I should just go myself."

My first reaction to a criticism like this is defensive. I may be apologetic on the surface, but inside I really tend to think the complaint is unfair.

My wife has learned to see through my routine, halfhearted apologies. Being sorry isn't enough, she says, if I continue to do the same thing again and again. As much as I hate to admit it, she has hit on something. An apology without any intention to change is just empty words.

"I Thought You Didn't Like Us." Change is precisely what the idea of repentance in moral theology is all about. If we're being honest with ourselves, we recognize that we're sinful creatures. We make mistakes, but we also deliberately do selfish and cowardly things, things we may be ashamed of later. Of course, it's good to be sorry for our bad actions, big and small. But we need to go beyond contrition to a determination to change.

This was brought home to me a couple of years ago by one of my adult daughters. When she was little, I was trying to earn tenure as a university professor and was working extra hours to support a growing family. I spent a great many evenings and weekends at the office. This was hard on my wife, caught at home with a bunch of small children.

I know I apologized for being gone so much. I also told myself that I was doing it for my family, not for my own satisfaction.

I was stunned, though, when my daughter remembered how much I was gone in those years and casually remarked, "I just thought you went to your office because you didn't like us." I reassured her that that wasn't so. At the same time, I realized that maybe success at work had been too important to me.

Many of us do work hard to feed our families. Sometimes, though, we also work to feed our pride, as I think I did, and that can be sinful. My daughter's comment pulled me up short and made me think about what I was currently doing and whether that needed to change.

Is it ever too late for an apology? Perhaps, but it is never too late for repentance.

What Jesus Offers. Our sin harms other people. It also weakens our own souls. Like a cancer, it eats away and diminishes our ability to give and to accept love—the love of our family, the love of our friends, and the love of God. The sins that wreak this havoc need not be dramatic. They can be quiet little misdeeds, like gossip or neglect of family.

The truth of the matter, one of the key messages of the gospel, is that we are all sinful and that even our "small" sins are corrosive. As we grow older, though, we often tire and make peace with our bad habits; we may even come to persuade ourselves that they are not so bad after all. Jesus offers another possibility.

Along with truth, he offers hope. This is the hope of repentance, the firm trust that the grace of God will give us the strength to become new persons who are no longer captive to sin.

Jesus sees in us possibilities that we often do not see ourselves. By repenting, we not only acknowledge the reality of sin: Cooperating with God's transforming grace, we also make an effort to "reinvent" ourselves as persons who reject the sins we used to embrace. Contrition and repentance are the first steps to becoming the persons Jesus calls us to be.

There Is Hope. I still work some long hours, but I don't travel as much as I once did. I haven't accomplished what I thought I might when I was young, but I'm more relaxed about that. I haven't overcome all of my faults (my wife continues to help me identify new ones), but there is hope.

Our youngest child is eight, and I know I spend more time with her than I did with her older siblings. The other day she brought back a homework paper in which she described her family. About me she said, "He always gives me a hug and lets me sit on his lap when I'm sad."

It may not sound like much, but I'm actually rather proud of it.

Robert Kennedy chairs the Department of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota, and co-directs the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy. He and his wife, Barbara, have twelve children.