Sunday, April 25, 2010

Excuse me!

Apology does have a place within our culture. In the common courtesies of day to day life there are phrases, that whilst practically inert, do indicate a degree of regret for having caused an inconvenience. Admittedly these are getting rarer but they are still here. In other parts of the world the 'culture of apology' is of much greater potency. In some Oriental cultures a formal apology, issued say by a multi national company, is the ultimate censure that could be inflicted. I understand that at least in one country apologies form part of the process terminating a legal dispute. An acceptance of the apology is required for the case to come to a satisfactory conclusion.

But what of the English speaking world? We are hearing a lot of apologies at the moment. Some of them pure lip service. Minor civil servants sending silly emails cause an uproar which immediately reults in a hastily prepared apology from some of the highest officials in the land. More considered apologies from ecclesiastics seem to be in abundance at the moment yet, in the secular world, there is something missing, something not quite right, in the whole process.

Whilst we seem to have got beyond the ersatz apology- one that accepts error but not real responsibility- we do seem to be slipping into a state where there is the danger that things may stop at the apology and get no further. I suspect that was in the mind of Pope Benedict as he has specified various ways of 'continuing' the apology issued. On the other hand you'll find plenty of instances of apologies being used as bandaids to handle a situation- to get it out of the press and public eye. Like the bandaid it's just a protecting cover up. The wound below is still fragile for a time and can cause trouble.

So what's missing? Well apology is not a one way affair - at least internally. For an apology to actually mean anything it needs to be accepted otherwise it's back to the drawing board. The proffered apology may serve to alleviate inconvenient pressure but be sure if it's not effective the problem will come back to bite you. It's here that Catholic tradition has much to teach us about real apologies.

In the confessional we confess our sins and then  make an act of contrition indicating our sorrow for what we have done but we also accept a penance, these days an internal sign of our contrition. It was not always this way and there have been times when public manifestations of penance have been exacted. One thinks of the penance shown by murderers of St Thomas Becket. Perhaps the time has come for some public manifestation of our penance for what has happened. The Bishops of England and Wales have proposed the Fridays of May as days of penance. For practicing Catholics this will not be taken lightly however what it will really mean for the vast majority of Britain is doubtful apart from the ritual humiliation of the perceived offenders which seems to be becoming yet another national past time.

What could be more obvious is a public manifestation of our penance in an ongoing gesture towards the society we live in. The stable funding of therapeutic centres for those who have suffered perhaps? More hostels for the homeless?  Direct funding of medical units, research and practical, who observe Catholic principles? The funding for more people to work in the already overstretched child protection units in each diocese? It's time for a 'grand' gesture. Suggestions on a post card to Ecclestone Square. No, wait, perhaps a Catholic Reparation Trust that could quietly get on with the job of funding more than just bandages.

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