When Jesus taught his disciples the Our Father, he elaborated on only one of the petitions—the one on forgiveness: “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:14-15).
The following example of forgiveness so moved me some years ago, when I was a parish priest, that I recorded it in my journal. I share it here in the hope that you, too, will be inspired by the story of this beautiful woman. May her example be a call for us to let go of any deep-seated hurts and to forgive others from the heart.
February 5, 1990. Today I buried a saint. Her name was Catherine Wilson. Since I’ve only been at this parish for a short time, I didn’t get to meet her until she was admitted to the hospital in December. As we talked, I discovered that although she had undergone surgery for the removal of a malignant tumor, her only concern was to resume her visits to the veterans’ hospital. She had volunteered there for more than thirty years, she informed me, and she had been awarded a bronze plaque for twenty thousand volunteer hours! Now at eighty-six, she was ever so eager to return to her “boys,” as she called them.
At that point, I remarked, “What fine Catholic parents you must have had, Catherine, to have raised a daughter like you!” She chuckled as she replied, “Father, I’m a convert to the faith, and my mother was quite prejudiced against Catholics.” I prompted her, “Quite prejudiced?”
She went on to describe her relationship with her mother. When Catherine graduated from college, the family moved to a new neighborhood. After worshipping for a few weeks at a nearby church where she found the preaching dull, Catherine told her parents that she was going church shopping. When she selected the Episcopal Church, her mother remarked, “Well, okay—just so it’s not a Catholic church.”
Catherine then recounted how she became very fond of Carl Wilson, a co-worker in her office. “Fr. Victor, he was the finest soul that God ever created. There was just one problem—he was Catholic.”
They dated secretly, fell in love, and became engaged—an engagement that lasted for years because Catherine did not want to offend her mother. Meanwhile, she herself became a Catholic.
When she finally informed her mother that she planned to marry Carl in a Catholic ceremony, her mother gave her three days to vacate the house. Preparing for the move, Catherine went to her hope chest in order to wrap the porcelain set of china that she had purchased over several years—one piece per month. On opening the chest, she found every last piece of china reduced to shards.
Then began a four-year odyssey during which Catherine sent her mother a card for Christmas, Mother’s Day, and her mother’s birthday. Each time, the cards were returned unopened, with the envelope stamped: “Return to sender. Refused by addressee.” On those same three yearly occasions, Catherine also hand delivered a gift; she always had to leave it on the porch, since her mother would not answer the door.
I interrupted. “Catherine, if your cards were being returned to you unopened, what do you think was happening to your gifts?”
“More than likely, they were being tossed in the trash can, unopened.”
“And you still delivered them?”
“My mother may have rejected me, but I wanted her to know that I could never reject her. She was still my mother. And God commanded us, ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”
Four long years of being rebuffed, yet Catherine continued to reach out in love.
All the while, however, Catherine’s father maintained regular contact with her by calling her when she was at work. Then one Sunday afternoon, he arrived unannounced while Carl was playing golf. “Catherine, let’s go for a little ride,” he said.
The ride led back to the family home. Her father got out of the car, and when Catherine hesitated, he encouraged her: “Come on; let’s go inside.”
What Catherine told me next was nothing short of miraculous. “Once inside the door, I caught the aroma of my favorite meal from childhood—sour beef and dumplings. Mother entered from the kitchen, wrapped her arms around me, and with tears streaming down her face, exclaimed, ‘Catherine, darling, please forgive me for the terrible way I’ve been treating you all these years!’”
Lord Jesus, how would I have responded, if either of my parents had treated me the way Catherine was treated? For one year, perhaps, I might have done what she did. Perhaps! After that, I would have reasoned: “Look, I’ve done my part. My mother is the one at fault! I’ll still pray for her—but why waste more time and money on her?”
Yes, Jesus, today I buried a saint. She learned the lesson that you taught—and learned it so much better than I, even after all my years as a priest. Turning the other cheek, she repaid rejection with love.
Catherine, dear sister, may you rest in peace!
Bishop Emeritus Victor Galeone served the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, for almost ten years before retiring in 2011. He now lives in a Trappist monastery in South Carolina.