What is a proper apology?

By Moira Billinge

I am often bemused by the subjects commissioned for research, usually at enormous expense to the public purse, when the answers could be given by any ordinary member of the general public with a modicum of common sense.

The science editor of a daily newspaper reported that recent research at Ohio State University had come up with a recipe for the 'perfect apology'. The results of the research published in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research examined how 755 people reacted to apologies containing between one and all six of the main components from an 'apology checklist' which included the following: acknowledgement of responsibility; making amends; expressing regret; explaining what went wrong; declaring repentance; and asking for forgiveness. The study found that if the wrongdoer wants to get their apology over with quickly, the most efficient way is to use what were considered the two most effective measures: taking responsibility and making amends, because you are committing yourself to 'undoing the damage'.

For those who decide to take the longer route – perhaps merited by a more serious misdemeanour – then expressing regret and declaring repentance were deemed the best way of delivering the apology. Asking for forgiveness came last on the list of priorities which surprised me because forgiveness is such an important part of the healing process for all concerned. It could be, however, that for most of us the very act of approaching someone to say sorry presumes that we seek forgiveness since most human beings need to have some sort of affirmation that they have been forgiven and a line drawn under the incident. No one wants to carry around with them the unnecessary burden of unresolved issues.

It is highly unlikely that anyone would deliberately seek to offer a false apology, although there are times when a vulnerable individual can be cowed or bullied into doing so – despite the other party being in the wrong. In such situations it can appear an easier option to go through the motions of apologising rather than to endure the real or perceived consequences of not doing so.

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation we already have the perfect formula if we want to say sorry properly, which includes every item on the professor's checklist and, most importantly of all, gives us the assurance that we are forgiven by God, no matter what wrong we have committed, provided we are indeed truly sorry. This is not, though, akin to a Monopoly 'Get out of jail free' card; there are conditions to be met. I read a very helpful Redemptorist Publications leaflet last week, The Sacrament of Reconciliation. One of the concluding paragraphs stated: "God has forgiven you, but your celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation does not end when you come out of the confessional or leave the church. At the heart of the celebration is your undertaking, not only that with God's help you will try not to sin again, but also that you will show by the way you live that you are conscious of having been forgiven and reconciled with others, the Church and God."

This wonderful Sacrament is not about grovelling in the shame of our sin before God; it is about acknowledging our weakness and allowing His love to lift us up above our failures. No one is beyond the forgiveness, love and mercy of God and it is never too late to say sorry to Him who, even when dying in agony on the Cross, told the repentant thief: "This day, you will be with me in Paradise."