Honoring your father

Q. I have a personal problem with the Fourth Commandment. It reads that we should honor our father and mother, but my own father is not an honorable man.

He has always been a self-centered person who puts his own needs above everyone else's. Right now he is elderly and sick with stage 4 cancer. He expects me to be there to take care of his every need, even though he resides in an assisted living facility, and he never gives a thought to how anyone else is doing.

I try to do what I can, and I want to follow the commandments, but I am having a real problem understanding how to handle this one. (South Carolina)

A. The command from the Decalogue to "honor your father" does not mean that you have to like the distasteful things you find in him. What it does mean, though, is that you are obliged to treat him with civility and decency - and with some measure of gratitude for having given you life.

In your present situation, that would mean doing what you reasonably can to ease your father's twin burdens of old age and sickness. The word "reasonably" is key: You may take comfort in the fact that your responsibilities to yourself and to your own family trump your obligations to your father, especially since his basic needs are being seen to by the assisted living staff, and so you can balance your time accordingly.

What he needs from you, probably more than anything else, is a bit of companionship on his difficult journey and the assurance that he has someone who cares.

There is no need to beat yourself up; my guess is that you're already doing most of what you need to. Honoring your father doesn't mean pretending that he has never hurt you or allowing yourself to be manipulated by him. It does mean trying your best to forgive and keep the lines of communication open. I have heard stories of long-strained relationships gently being healed in later life, when circumstances change and people need each other in new ways.

I will pray that this is one of those stories.

Fr. Doyle is a priest of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y. He is the former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service and director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015