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On April 19-20, 2017 the Avila Institute sponsored a 2-day conference on forgiveness for those who administer to spiritual health of those they care for. The conference was well received and had approximately 50 participants in attendance. The conference included 9 hours of presentations as well as time for reflection on the beautiful grounds at St. Teresa’s Motherhouse which is located on the shore of the Hudson River overlooking the Catskill Mountains.

"Saints are great people who did amazing things, but no one says how they managed to do it" - Brother Mark Knightly

Brother Mark Knightly opened day one of the conference with a presentation on the importance of forgiveness, stressing that it transcends religious barriers, is a skill that must be cultivated (not a one-time deal!), and is essential in order to age well - both mentally and physically. Techniques were shared to assist caregivers in their roles as coauthors in the storybooks of the elders' lives that they care for (e.g., autobiographical reflection).

Sister Lucille Theroux’s presentation followed, entitled 'Vulnerability.' Excerpts from the works of Brené Brown, Dr. Ira Byock and Pema Chödrön were expounded upon to stress the importance of approaching relationships from a point of vulnerability. The idea of sharing and being who we really are may feel overwhelming and risky, but it also has the potential of affecting others' lives in an invaluable way.

Sister Katharine (Kitty) Hanley furthered the discussion from a scriptural perspective by sharing her personal experience as well as two passages from the Book of Mark. The passages reflect Jesus' unyielding forgiveness, demonstrated by His forgiveness of the paralytic man (Mark 2: 1-12) and the hemorrhaging woman (Mark 5: 21-32). "We all have a ministry, and part of our ministry is to give forgiveness and peace. But first, we must have a willingness to be forgiven and to be healed so that we can forgive and heal."

"Don't hold on to resentment. It's not like it's something you may need to hold on to in case you need it at a later date" - Brother Wayne Fitzpatrick.

Brother Wayne Fitzpatrick introduced day two of the conference, sharing his personal reflection on the healing effect of forgiveness and encouraging attendees to do the same. Brother Wayne touched on the profound negative effects of carrying resentment and bitterness, especially how they manifest during the latter years of our lives. Conversely, Brother Wayne also spoke about the immeasurable positive effects that the act of forgiveness can have if we are willing to forgive, and therefore, heal. Brother Wayne will give this presentation again on May 16th as a webinar cosponsored by the National Religious Retirement Office (NRRO).

Sister Peter Lillian Di Maria and Alf Norwood complemented Brother Wayne's presentation by illustrating the positive impact of spirituality on dementia. "People with dementia still have life because they breathe, but life force is more than breath.It is the mystery at the core of each one of us. There is a sacred, holy core in each person; the part of us that connects with the ultimate source of life - the Divine, the Holy, God." - Sister Peter Lillian Di Maria. By taking the time to understand a person's story, it helps us understand and assist in strengthening their spirituality. By understanding the progression of dementia, exemplified by Alf Norwood's presentation, caregivers can feel confident in developing programs that enhance the spiritual lives of those whom they care for.

The seminar concluded with a presentation led by Cynthia Tokos where she shared her insight into using art as an inspiration for forgiveness. Ms. Tokos’ provided tangible examples of forgiveness pieces; for example, writing a forgiveness letter, discussing a meaningful literary excerpt, and using pictures to evoke thoughts and emotions. Participants were immersed in sensory stimuli, such as emotionally moving music, poetry and visuals. Time was given to reflect and stroll along the property grounds to take in scenic views of the Hudson River. The purpose of this interactive, self-reflection session was to inspire attendees to write their own forgiveness piece, thus equipping them with an actionable resource to facilitate their unique process toward forgiveness.

Participants found much of the content helpful in their ministry and made note of how they plan to use this new information:

  • "I plan to share this information and learning at a workshop for chaplains in long-term care in June. We will also incorporate it in our care of elders, especially in memory care units."
  • "I will be aware of the little things each day that I need to forgive. I will visit one of our sisters in memory care and try to use some of what I learned."
  • "It has given me motivation to begin conversations with those I work with."
  • "I have learned to stay with the person with dementia in the time and place he/she is."

Overall the conference was well received. Here are some comments made by the participants:

  • "I am very grateful for all the planning, preparing, execution- all the details of this well-rounded program. Hospitality was superb."
  • "Great presentations – this is my first experience and enjoyed it a lot!"
  • "This was a wonderful two days! I am so happy I learned about it and that I came. Thank you so much!"
  • "I greatly appreciate my time here at Avila. The material was excellent and very helpful. God bless you and your ministry."
  • "Thanks so much for all you did to make this workshop available for us. The hospitality here is outstanding! And the workshop in-put was just excellent."

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