Imagine three expressions written above the doorway… The expressions are: “may I?”, “thank you”, and “pardon me”. Indeed, these expressions open up the way to living well in your family, to living in peace. They are simple expressions, but not so simple to put into practice! They hold much power: the power to keep home life intact even when tested with a thousand problems. But if they are absent, little holes can start to crack open and the whole thing may even collapse.
— Pope Francis (General Audience May 13, 2015)
On Sunday’s Feast of the Holy Family, two things grabbed my attention: the words of the second reading at Mass and the news that Pope Francis had written a letter to married couples for the “Amoris Laetitia Family” Year. I particularly noticed the reading, from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, because my wife and I chose it as the second reading at our wedding almost seventeen years ago. It is a very moving reflection on how we are called to relate to others as we live a Christian life, exercising charity, patience, and forgiveness, and doing so in the peace of Christ:
Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another,
if one has a grievance against another;
as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.
And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection.
And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,
the peace into which you were also called in one body.
And be thankful.
— Col 3:12-15
In the spring of 2021, as things were beginning to open up after the winter COVID surge, I started to notice something unsettling on my Facebook timeline. Amid the various memes and posts, random ads for divorce lawyers began appearing. The first ad I noticed was actually somewhat amusing, picturing a young woman dressed as a witch, and posing the question, “Are you married to the wife from hell?” I showed the ad to my wife, and we both had a good laugh.
As time went on, however, the ads increased in frequency. My amusement turned to irritation—and then exasperation. I began to realize that as much as these ads frustrated and upset me, they spoke to a difficult and depressing truth: the pandemic has been particularly difficult on marriage and family life. If there was ever a time for “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another, and forgiving one another,” as Paul says, it would be now.
But how do we put this into practice?
One of the things I love about Pope Francis is how practical his advice is. In his new letter to married couples, he once again reminds us of a bit of advice he has dispensed to families throughout his papacy, “Think about the advice I gave you on the importance of those three little words: ‘please, thanks, sorry.’ After every argument, ‘don’t let the day end without making peace.’”
Pope Francis has spoken quite often of these “three little words,” which are permesso, grazie, and scusa in the original Italian. Although the Italian words have remained consistent throughout his papacy, they have been translated into English in various ways. For example, in his Angelus address on the Feast of the Holy Family last year, they were translated as “excuse me,” “thank you,” and “I am sorry.” In his 2013 address on the same feast, as well as an April 2014 general audience, they were translated as “may I, thank you, and sorry.” In paragraph 133 of Amoris Laetitia, his 2016 apostolic exhortation on the family, these words are translated as “‘Please,’ ‘Thank you,’ ‘Sorry.’”
Looking at the sense in which he describes each of these words, I think the most accurate English translation of permesso, grazie, and scusa is “may I, thank you, and pardon me.” This is how they were translated in his May 13, 2015 general audience catechesis, when he gave a detailed explanation of each of these terms.
The pope began his catechesis at the audience by addressing the potential temptation to brush off the topic of manners as insignificant, quoting St. Francis de Sales’s assertion that “good manners are already half the way to holiness.” Addressing the concern that good manners can be abused to hide sins and duplicity, the Holy Father agreed that manners can “become a kind of formalism that masks a dryness of soul and indifference toward the other person. … It is often said, ‘behind a lot of good manners lurk a lot of bad habits.’”
Francis goes on to say that despite this, there is much truth in de Sales’s quote. He explained, “We, however, mean ‘good manners’ only in the most authentic way, according to which the habit of cultivating good relations is firmly rooted in a love for the good and a respect for the other person.” He proceeded to share his reflections on each of the “three expressions.”
The following are his explanations from that May 2015 audience, of how each of these words should be applied in our family life.
Let’s look at these expressions: the first expression is, “may I?” When we take care to ask for something kindly — even something we think we have a rightful claim to — we help to strengthen the common life that undergirds marriage and the family. Entering into the life of another, even when that person already has a part to play in our life, demands the sensitivity of a non-invasive attitude which renews trust and respect. Indeed, the deeper and more intimate love is, the more it calls for respect for the other’s freedom and the ability to wait until the other opens the door to his or her heart. At this point, we can remember the words of Jesus in the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20). Even the Lord asks permission to enter! Let us not forget that. Before doing anything in your family, ask: “Do you mind if I do this? Would you like me to do this?” This way of asking is well-mannered indeed, but it is also full of love. This does so much good for families.
The second expression is “thank you”. Sometimes we have to wonder if we are turning into a civilization of bad manners and bad words, as if this were a sign of self-liberation. It’s not uncommon to hear these bad words publicly. Kindness and the ability to say “thank you” are often considered a sign of weakness and raise the suspicion of others. This tendency is encountered even within the nucleus of the family. We must become firmly determined to educate others to be grateful and appreciative: the dignity of the person and social justice must both pass through the portal of the family. If family life neglects this style of living, social life will also reject it. Gratitude, however, stands at the very core of the faith of the believer. A Christian who does not know how to thank has lost the very “language” of God. This is terrible! Let’s not forget Jesus’ question after he heals the ten lepers and only one of them returns to thank him (Luke 17:18). I remember once listening to a very wise, old person; very simple, but with that uncommon wisdom of life and piety: “Gratitude is a plant that grows only in the soil of noble souls”. That nobility of soul, that grace of God in the soul compels us to say “thank you” with gratitude. It is the flower of a noble soul. This really is something beautiful.
The third expression is “pardon me”. Granted, it’s not always easy to say, but it is so necessary. Whenever it is lacking, the little cracks begin to open up — even when we don’t want them to — and they can even become enormous sinkholes. It’s hardly insignificant that in the “Our Father” that Jesus teaches us — a prayer that sums up all of life’s essential questions — we find this expression: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matt 6:16). To acknowledge that we have fallen short, to be desirous of returning that which has been taken away — respect, sincerity, love — these make us worthy of pardon. This is how we heal the infection. If we are not able to forgive ourselves, then we are no longer able to forgive period. A house in which the words “I’m sorry” are never uttered begins to lack air, and the flood waters begin to choke those who live inside. So many wounds, so many scrapes and bruises are the result of a lack of these precious words: “I am sorry”. Marital life is so often torn apart by fights … the “plates will even start flying”, but let me give you a word of advice: never finish the day without making peace with one another. Listen to me carefully: did you fight with your wife or husband? Kids — did you fight with your parents? Did you seriously argue? That’s not a good thing, but it’s not really that which is the problem: the problem arises only if this feeling hangs over into the next day. So if you’ve fought, do not let the day end without making peace with your family. And how am I going to make peace? By getting down on my knees? No! Just by a small gesture, a little something, and harmony within your family will be restored. Just a little caress, no words necessary. But don’t let the sun go down on your family without having made your peace. Do you understand me? It’s not easy, but you have to do it. It will help to make life so much more beautiful.
I’ve been married long enough to know how easy it is to become complacent and entitled. Reflecting on Pope Francis’s words, I find myself with lots of questions, specifically directed at myself. When I say, please, am I really thinking or caring about the potential impact of my requests on my wife and my children? When my wife and kids do what I think they’re “supposed to do,” does it even cross my mind to thank them? Do I take what they do for granted, while at the same time demanding that my own actions are seen and appreciated? Do I model gratitude for my kids? How often do I go through a day without having the humility to say sorry to my wife and my kids, to ask forgiveness from them when I wrong them, ignore them, don’t take what they have to say seriously enough, overreact to them, or treat them unfairly? And when I do say I’m sorry, do I really mean it? Am I serious about learning from my mistakes?
Pope Francis gets it. He doesn’t portray marriage and family life in an unrealistic way. He knows it’s not easy. It can be tempting to spiritualize them to the point that we neglect the simple tools that God has given us to show love to our families. Pope Francis reminds us that it’s the little things we might shrug off as too simple or insignificant to have much importance—like showing love through our manners—that can help us preserve and strengthen marriage and family life. Let’s keep his practical advice in mind and use it to work towards making Paul’s beautiful words in his epistle a reality.
Image: Adobe Stock.
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Joseph Snearline is a Catholic writer, travel consultant, and advocate for people with disabilities. He lives in Colorado’s Front Range with his wife Grace and their two kids.