Mea Culpa

blackadder at Vox Nova blogs on the medical establishment bucking legal advice and offering apologies to people who were victims of avoidable medical mistakes. The NYT original is here.

Funny how the recipe of humility, admission of error, and vulnerability has somehow missed the cookbook of most bishops. Given the landscape of litigation on sex abuse, one might think they have nothing to lose to return to a time-honored approach: a sincere apology.

Rendering an authentic apology is a difficult thing to learn. I’m not sure a person can just do it. I think it needs to be modelled and taught.

My wife is better at it than I. She has taught me, and we in turn, try to teach our daughter. How? By doing it ourselves. It also runs against conventional wisdom in family life for parents to apologize to their children. It subverts parental authority, some say.

Our daughter is only eleven, but over the past year, I see her ability to apologize is fairly sharp. She can say she’s sorry without prompting, and she can identify what it is she’s sorry for doing or saying.

The times I’ve been on the recipient end of an apology have also been an inspiration.

My mother offered an amazing apology to me when I was in grad school. I had finished up all the work for my theology degree, and was a few weeks away from graduation. I had returned home from a Midwest interview trip that was less than hopeful. My best interview had been in a Twin Cities parish and I had these people eating out of my hand. Then organ skills came up. These people wanted a liturgist. Their ad mentioned no keyboard skills. They just assumed. I was in no way able to deliver what they really needed. It was a rather embarrassing end to the discussion, and I detected (I thought) some disappointment in a few committee members. (“Couldn’t we hire him to do liturgy and direct the choirs and get an organist on the side?”)

Anyway, Mom gave me the week’s worth of mail when I got home. Pastoral Music magazine was on the top. She handed it to me and said she had no idea how many jobs were there for church musicians, and how almost all of them required a music degree. She said she and Dad knew how much I wanted to learn the piano and organ when I was a kid. She said she was sorry they never listened to my requests for music lessons. I could tell she meant it.

It was amazing how much frustration, anger, and ill-feeling that simple exchange short-circuited.

Another amazing apology was rendered about a year later. I had been dating a young woman, and unbeknownst to me, another parishioner (someone in the choir I barely knew) became insanely jealous. She spread rumors I was gay and my woman friend’s parents attempted to get me fired from the parish. This was going on for at least two months before I knew anything about it. The pastor brought it up two weeks before my contract was up and the day before my vacation began. Needless to say there was a whole ton of damage. The pastor was revealed (to me) as being gullible and spineless. I never trusted him again, and of course, no apology was forthcoming. A good friend was deeply hurt by insinuations from people he didn’t even know at all. My woman friend had little to say. Her mother was unrepentant. But after I returned from vacation, her father came to me and apologized. He admitted he had misread the entire situation and he hoped his daughter and I would be able to repair our romance. Sadly, the repair was never realized, but I was struck by the guts it took for him to come to me and talk man to man.

Those examples and others I take to heart. I was in a parish once with a pastor who was , let’s say, not the best detail guy. He had scheduled an infant baptism during a pulpit exchange weekend and was gone to the other side of town when the baby and family showed up. A guest priest was called upon at the last minute to preside at this baptism, but nothing was prepared. The Rite book was in my office. No sacristan had prepared any water or supplies. The choir was singing, thinking they had a free church in which to warm up for the next Mass. I was also away from the parish that morning.

We had a very irate family, especially the mother. Someone had to offer the apology. The pastor wasn’t forthcoming with one, so as the liturgist, it was left to me. It was my fault the Rite book was on my desk; the pastor had asked me to work up some handouts for baptism prep classes and such.

As for the internet and the blogosphere, I’ll say the format lends itself little to apology. I know I need to work on it here more than in real life.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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1 Response to Mea Culpa

  1. Your examples are very poignant. They symbolize a piece of ourselves that is very profound albeit smeared over by the basic principles of our culture.

    And yet, once we shed light on that hidden dimension, and allow it to assert itself in all we think and do, a radical transformation can reshape America’s social, economic, political, and religious reality.

    The piece of ourselves that I’m referring to is the fact that the human person is intrinsically relational. We are created as a trinitarian image of a Trinitarian God.

    The indifference we posit towards one another violates the most fundamental aspect of who we are as persons. Radical indifference is the stuff of Hell, and the human spirit struggles against its every presence. No wonder life in America is so coarse.

    Continue to develop this theme. It is worth an entire life’s work.

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