What my father taught me from his deathbed about fatherhood, faith and forgiveness


Matt Palmer, a former staff member of the Catholic Review, visits his dying father in 2020 (Courtesy of the Palmer family)

The church teaches that parents are the primary educators of the faith. I have to be honest: it made me uncomfortable.

Yes, my parents took me to mass and taught me prayer at a young age, but the lay teachers at my Catholic school, as well as the priests and sisters, took over the meat and potatoes from the Catholicism at school. I don’t think my parents were the only ones who thought there was always someone better qualified to teach us the faith.

All my life, my father did not participate sacramentally in the life of the church.

He faithfully went to Mass, but when he received the Eucharist he did not go with his family. And he did not receive the sacrament of reconciliation. Both were tied at the hip and he was a bench keeper.

Dad had a best friend – grudge. He did not speak with his brother for almost 30 years and he eliminated many other members of his family. Eventually, this same fate befell my siblings and me.

After almost 15 years without hearing from daddy, we got a call from our uncle. He reconnected with dad, largely through phone calls, in the years that followed. By the end of 2019, Dad had fallen ill and by January 2020, he was told he had terminal leukemia, which is common among Vietnam War veterans.

My uncle said if there was ever a time to make peace with Dad, it was then. We didn’t tell Dad we were visiting him at his Washington hospital. We just went.

I had a panic attack in the bathroom in the hall of the hospital. I was afraid to face his judgment and rejection. Finally, with the love and encouragement of the family, I went upstairs and took a deep breath as I walked through her door.

He recognized my sister right away, but took a minute to register my face considering the years and the weight. He looked me in the eye and said, “Hey, Matt!”

He then acted as if we had just seen each other a few days before. The past didn’t matter. He just cared that I was there.

Dad later said that a priest came to visit him and that he was offered the sacrament of reconciliation. After decades of restraint, my father shied away from pride. He shared with the priest a life that had weighed on his conscience.

“It all spilled out,” Dad said as tears rolled down his bearded cheeks. “I was so scared. But he just listened to me and didn’t judge me. Things were so hard. I think things are changing. I really do. It felt good. It really is. .

At that time, Dad was my primary faith educator, reminding me of the overwhelming mercy available in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

He died a week later, with my sister and I by his side. He could barely get the words out, but prayed with the priest who had anointed him in his last hours.

Dad’s role as a catechist was one he forgot for much of his life. But his last sacramental journey was one of the greatest training I have ever received in Catholicism.

Looking into the eyes of the youngest of our three children, Martin Maximillian, we are reminded how much he has to learn about the world and, above all, about his faith and the mission it confers on it.

What I have to admit is that my own religious education is incomplete. It’s a trip of a lifetime, and being a father reminds me that there are always questions – often repeated several times in one sitting – that need to be answered. Thanks to my father’s lessons, I know my role better than ever.

I am a Catholic, a father and a catechist. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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