Long Read: A Father's Day Letter to My Late Dad | "A Prodigal Son's Good Father" by Deacon Aaron Peterson

Happy Father’s Day! Today is wonderful day to thank God Almighty for our own father and all those men who have been icons of God’s benign paternity in our lives.

In this Father’s Day essay, Deacon Aaron Peterson of Saint Anthony of Padua parish in Hillsdale gives prayerful thanks for his late father, Ronald E. Petersen, who died last year at the age of 76. May he rest in peace.

Deacon Peterson reflects upon how the grace of God can draw the great good even from the darkest moments of family life. In this regard, he draws upon the writing of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 74) who saw the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden as a felix culpa or “happy fault” given it hastened, he said, the incarnation of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Deacon Peterson writes:


A letter from me to you is long overdue. I know you left this world just over a year ago, but I figure it’s never too late to write you such a note and hope that it will somehow make it across that thin veil that separates this world from yours. I am confident that everything here I have already spoken to you at some point or shared the sentiments with you in some way. My Father’s Day note to you is titled: “O Happy Fault.” If someone else reads this note, they may find it entirely peculiar, a sort of back-handed compliment from a son to his father. You, however, know the depth of my love for you, our way of communicating, and the particulars of our beautiful and once-strained relationship!

You know how much I have loved chanting the Exultet as a deacon at the Vigil each year, and how I always wished you could be there for it (partly because some say I sound a little like Neil Diamond, whom you treasure). Anyway, there’s a part in the Exultet where the Church is praising God for the mystery of Adam’s original sin, that because of his sin we were given our glorious Redeemer, who broke the prison bars of death and reconciled us to God. Here’s the line.

O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!

O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!

It’s like the Church is saying, “Way to go Adam, great job!” Well, it’s kinda saying that, or maybe the Church is saying, “Adam, that wasn’t good, but you know what, if you hadn’t partaken of that forbidden fruit, we wouldn’t have gotten Jesus.”

This mystery of this “gift” of Adam’s sin is one of my favorite parts of the Church’s praises each Easter. So much so, that it has become for me a part of my personal daily prayers and praises, and it is at the core of my spiritual life. I know I have greatly sinned too. When I turn to Christ and give Him my sins and sufferings, He redeems me, strengthens me, and transforms my sins and sufferings into tremendous gifts that I can share with others (Or not share, depending upon my sin status!). It instills in me a deeper humility. I know I will sin again and suffer again, but I also know that with each sinful fall or bout of misery comes a deeper conversion through the grace of God. I know sin is not good, it’s willingly participating in evil. But I am so grateful for my sins, simply for what God has done in my life through them and for the deeper conversion. They become a “gift” because of God’s mercy. It’s as if my personal sins have been “truly necessary sins.” I may first cringe when I reflect upon them, but I always end with “O happy fault.”

The same is true when I look at all the sin and suffering that affected our relationship over the years, especially those years during and following the divorce (my adolescent years). I cringe at first at how we hurt each other, and especially how I hurt you. But I want to share with you the numerous “O happy faults” of our relationship and how they have made us better and closer. I want to celebrate with you how it took a special priest friend of mine, Fr. Tom Butler, to help me as an adult see beyond what I perceived as your sin and my suffering, and to see actually what was my sin and your suffering.

Before I get into the list of “O Happy Faults,” perhaps I just take a moment to thank you for all the joys and pleasures of a great childhood with a loving father. That is, before I give the list of the strikeouts and errors that taught me to be a better ballplayer, let’s cover some of the homeruns and great plays of our relationship.

Thank you for the love you gave me and the time you spent with me. I cherish our family meals together, the years you spent coaching me in baseball, watching TV on the sofa together (Baa Baa Blacksheep, Six Million Dollar Man, Mork & Mindy, Dukes of Hazard, Wild Kingdom, etc.), swimming and hanging out at the pool (despite your ugly green swim trunks), going on camping trips and fishing trips, going to Mass and then visiting Grandma & Grandpa or Nana & Bompa, going golfing together, and spending time in the car going places and talking about seemingly insignificant stuff. I loved going to work with you a few days each summer, where I drew pictures at the drafting table and then watched all the guys doing their tool and die thing. I still have the smell of honing oil in my nostrils and probably metal shavings somewhere.

Thank you for being firm with us kids, for your simple approach to right vs. wrong and to faith. Thank you for your and mom’s gift of laughter and good humor, to be able to see the folly in things and to not take ourselves too seriously. Thanks for taking me to movies like Airplane, Star Wars, Top Gun, Chariots of Fire, and Top Secret (and for nudging me to close my eyes at certain parts). Thanks for introducing me to the great movies like Ben-Hur, Moses, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Jesus of Nazareth. Thanks for sharing your love of Neil Diamond, Waylon Jennings, and Hank Jr. Thanks for coming home and unwinding at the piano and playing all those showtunes, where we could sit and unwind with you.

In sum, thank you for the great experiences and memories, for your time and love, and for teaching me to laugh, cry, have faith in God, and appreciate music, nature, and sports.

Now for the O Happy Faults….

Remember when I was 13 and we had a family meeting, where you and mom informed us that your guys’ counselor suggested that we should take a break from going to church? I remember thinking, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but this can’t possibly be right.” I don’t think you two entirely believed it either, but things were getting difficult at home for you two and you had to try something. You probably didn’t notice, but boy was I mad! I knew I was being handed a lie. So, to show you all how wrong it was, I rebelled and went to church by myself that next day! I even got up an extra hour early and made noise so everyone would know I was still going to church and getting there early. As I walked into church with my great piety, I realized I was actually two hours early because of daylight savings. I still feel like someone was mocking me or humbling me with the whole daylight savings part. So, I sat there for two hours, scared, alone, and looking for encouragement from God. And did I get it! That day, I sat in church and God spoke to me. He let me know that he is truly present in the blessed sacrament, I need not be afraid, and I am to be confident that I am always in His hands, no matter what. To this day, it still moves me whenever I go back to that conversation with God. It was my first unplanned holy hour and deep conversation with God, and it was made possible by the lie about not going to church. O Happy Fault!

Remember that day when I was 17 and came angrily into your office in the wake of the divorce with the letter you had sent me that I did not appreciate? I can’t truly remember what was in the letter, but it must have been an important letter because we spent quite some time together discussing where it should be filed. I remember me handing the letter to you and suggesting where you might file it, and then you handing it right back to me with your own suggestion of where I might file it. Whatever claim of injustice I had regarding the letter, I lost the claim in my handling of the situation. Even if I was right, I was wrong. But…O Happy Fault, that was a big day for us. In addition to learning all the different ways to file a letter, that was the day I asked you for my independence and you gave it to me. That was the day the prodigal son left his father with all his inheritance. And you let me go. You didn’t beat me up for it or chase me down, you let me go. As a father of eight myself, I now know how painful and difficult that day must have been for you. I thank you for that difficult day. Without that day, there wouldn’t have been such a sweet return to you down the road. O Happy Fault!

Do you remember my senior year of high school and my college years? If you do, that’s impressive because I worked hard at keeping my distance from you. I had some great memories during those years, made some great friends, met Kathy my bride, studied hard (most of the time), and had many successes in football and baseball in college. During those years, however, I not only kept my distance from you, but I kept my distance from God. I was only two hours away from you and 15minutes of silence away from God, but I was truly in a far country squandering my inheritance. I lived life as a victim of divorce, filled with resentment and self-righteous indignation. After all, you were the one who moved out of the house after the divorce. You left us; you abandoned me and our family. Right?! Divorce is complicated, painful, and messy, so it was easier for me to lay it all at your feet. I was even good at blaming my own sin on you (I was talented at this point). But, if I had not experienced living life in sin, resentment, and accusing others, I would not have been able to fully enjoy the experience of mercy, forgiveness, and the Peace of Christ. I lived many years accusing others and excusing myself, it was a sweet change when I eventually learned of the peace that comes from excusing others and accusing self. O Happy Fault!

Do you remember when I was married with our first born and we moved back to town for a stint and we tried reconnecting? You helped me with some errands and as we drove around, I thought we would have a serious conversation about our relationship. In trying to explain where we were in our relationship I said to you, “I don’t consider you family [anymore], you’re not a close friend, so what are you and why would I make time for you?” I thought it was a mature start, and the fact that I thought so reveals my true immaturity and lack of charity at the time. I put salt in a wound, but you were gracious nonetheless and took my comment at face value, as a positive step. I appreciate that exchange because it would make the exchange of my true return even sweeter. O Happy Fault!

Do you remember when I was in the early years of my diaconal formation living back in Hillsdale, we had five of our eight kids and probably one on the way? I was learning that deacons are to be heralds of the gospel, and the gospel is filled with our Lord telling us that forgiveness and love of neighbor (including enemies) is required of a disciple. I was beginning to realize that I had a problem, I had grown tremendously in my faith, but I had not fully forgiven you. And Holy Orders means doubling down on walking the talk! And to make matters more humbling, my oldest asked me one day when he was 9yrs old why we didn’t spend more time with Grandma and Grandpa Petersen (i.e., you and Cindy, their Nana and Bompa). There were only bad answers to his question. Well son, some people are unforgivable. Or there are some family members you just don’t make time for. Or honoring your father and mother is only a suggestion. All I could say was, “Son you’re right we should spend more time with them.” I told Kathy what he said, and her reply was, “I could never figure out why you and your siblings were so hard on your dad.” Then I went to Fr. Tom Butler about this, my pastor and mentor. He asked me, “Why are you so hurt by your dad, why do you think your heart holds him in contempt?” I said, “I haven’t thought about it deeply for years, but I would say it’s because he left us, he abandoned us.” Then Fr. Tom said to me, “Isn’t it interesting that the sin you have held over his head for 20 years is the same sin you’ve been committing against him? Have you not abandoned him? Have you not kept your children away from him, forced them to play a part in abandoning him? My dear son, now may be a good time for you to reconcile with your dad. What kind of deacon do you want to be? What kind of husband? What kind of father? What is your witness going to be to your children regarding love and forgiveness, and to the parish that you serve?

After these conversations, I punished my oldest and switched churches. Ok, all kidding aside, I called you and asked if I could come visit you and Cindy and bring the family. Of course, you were delighted and said yes. I didn’t share that I had this big plan to tell you that I forgive you. It’s funny because that’s not exactly what happened was it?! As I drove the two hours from Hillsdale to Grand Rapids, I kept thinking about how I was going to tell you I forgive you. I couldn’t think of the right way to approach it until I asked God for help while only 10minutes left in our trip to see you. He made it clear to me, that this trip was not really about my forgiving you, but for me to ask you and Cindy for forgiveness for all that I had done and failed to do, for all the sins I committed and the suffering I caused.

Dad, I remember you standing in your living room bay window watching as I drove closer in our large van. You were filled with compassion as we drew near. When we arrived, my kids attacked the front door and greeted you quickly before they rushed in to scope out the house. Kathy came in, and then I came in. You hugged me and kissed me. Cindy too. It wasn’t long at all before it was just the four of us adults and I said, “Dad, I came here today to ask for your forgiveness.” You said in all sincerity, “For what?” as you racked your brain trying to think of what had happened recently. I said, “Dad, I need to ask you for your forgiveness for the ways I treated you over the years.” You said, “Of course I forgive you, you were just a kid.” I said, “Dad, I was mad at you for the divorce and for leaving. But then I committed the same sin, I left you. But I hold the greater sin because I did it for so long and involved my kids in it, your grandchildren. I deprived you of years together with me, my wife, and my children. It makes me sick to think what I have done against you and your wife, and I ask for your forgiveness.” You and Cindy each forgave me. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and the peace that came over the entire room and all of us was palpable and that peace never left our relationship from that day forward. And to finish off our Prodigal moment, you had a feast for us all, steak and pie! O Happy Fault!

I just can’t imagine our relationship without that powerful return and reconciliation. I am so grateful to you for your witness of the Father’s Love. You were a good Father to a Prodigal Son. Your witness of forgiveness has transformed all my vocations. My stony heart that was hardened with resentment over all those years and that affected all my relationships and decisions was now replaced with a new heart because of you and your witness of our Heavenly Father’s Mercy. O Happy Fault!

In closing, I wish to say thank you for allowing Amy, Eric, and I, your beloved children, to be a part of your holy suffering and death last year, to be a part of your passion and death. When I got the call that you were in the hospital and that you wouldn’t leave the hospital alive, I was devastated, I wasn’t ready. I wanted more time with you, especially considering those lost years we had. But His Will be done, not ours. When we arrived in your room you broke the ice with an Airplane quote, loosely translated as “What a bummer!” We stayed with you in your Agony in the Garden, while you questioned the doctors and God if you must drink this cup. We were with you when that kind priest anointed you. We were able to be with you while you suffered along your way of the cross, we tried our best to be Simon of Cyrene but were more like the weeping women of Jerusalem. You encouraged us, told us how much you loved us. We shared our stories together, made each other laugh, and sang Neil Diamond songs together. You even got in trouble for removing your oxygen to be able to sing. You gave my siblings their Prodigal moment with you, which you had given me years earlier. It was a great gift to them, and they speak of it often. When they left the hospital, I was able to stay with Cindy through the remaining hours of your passion. We sat at either side of your bed as John and the Blessed Mother stood at the foot of the cross, filled with sorrow. After your death, I have come to understand Paschal Joy more deeply, what it means to experience sorrow and joy at the same time. The separation still stings, but the joyful hope of your resurrection fills my heart. O Happy Fault!

Dad, please pray for me as I wait here in Joyful Hope for that big reunion in heaven. Pray for all of your family who remain here. We will pray for you too. Rest in peace, Dad, and I look forward to being with you at Mass and seeing you again someday face to face.


Aaron Michael

PS: Please tell Fr. Tom I love him, and thank him for everything he did for me.

* Photograph above: Dad in Hospital in GR, the day he died, his three kids, Amy, Eric, and Aaron.

* Photograph below: Dad with orange shirt on bench. That's me and my brother Eric behind him. That's July of 2020 in Luther, MI at the College's Lodge.