Who is the "prodigal son" of the Gospel parable? Is he the child who has abandoned the Faith and is living in what is cloaked deceptively as an "alternate lifestyle"? Is he the man and woman living together without marriage in the state of adultery or fornication? Is he the college student drinking on weekends and skipping holy Mass on Sunday? Yes, he is all of these and more.
But is not the prodigal son or daughter also the Catholic who neglects the Sacrament of Confession while guilty of mortal sin and yet comes forward for holy Communion every week? Is he the Catholic who uses the Sacraments as social events only, bringing a child to the Lord for Baptism at the beginning of the child's life and then refusing to practice the Faith every week and obey the Commandments by attending Mass with the family? He is all of these persons and every person who has abandoned a life in love and communion with God through Christ, the grace He offers in the holy Church.
But what about the parents who are watching the evil of cancer rapidly consume the body of their young son? What of the mother grieving endlessly for a stillborn daughter who feels alone and abandoned in her sadness? What of the parents of a child who refuses to understand and reacts with anger when they decline to attend that child's invalid marriage or marital-simulation ceremony? When good people are suffering and when they pray and pray for healing or relief and feel as though they are neglected and left without answers to their questions, is this not also experienced as a kind of "distance" from the Father? It is like the experience of the son who, raised in the dignity of the Father's home, now lives in the filth of pigs and yet is no longer considered worthy even to share their meager food.
The "good son" reacts to the Father's generous love of the younger son by making an accusation: "Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends." This is the frustration of a good person, obedient and close to God through a life of faithfulness in the Church, yet who is still struggling to understand what it means to be close to the Father, to truly share one's life with the Father, and that unanswered wants or needs do not mean the Father has stopped loving us.
The mystery of freedom, God's freedom and ours, is at work here. The Father did not cease to love the younger son even in his prodigal sin. But the Father did not run after the son and kidnap him, forcing him to return home to the shared love and holy life of the family. The son had first to accept the truth of his freedom, accepting the gift and then using it in an upright way, to decide freely to "get up" out of the mire of sin, and all the lies and deceit that prop up a sinful life, and to use his own energy and love to walk back to the Father whose love for him was never in doubt.
But what of the older son: did he not also lack love? Yes, he shared the house of the Father and complied with the Father's commands, but yet lacked the love that is the reason for obeying and which enables one to fully and authentically share the life of the Father. He lacked joy because he measured the value of his life only by what he could get, mired in his poverty as he was by listing all of the demands that were never met on his terms.
Every one of us is a son or daughter of God. Every one of us needs to know and to experience the dignity of grace which is the robe the Father places over our shoulders in love. We need the shoes placed on our feet for perseverance in the journey of faith. We need the ring of committed love which the Father places on our fingers as He espouses Himself to us as our God. And all of this is ours in Christ. And Christ is ours here in holy Mass, through the gifts of Word and Sacrament.
But each of us must begin from wherever we find ourselves and in freedom "get up and return to the Father" in particular each week at Sunday Mass. If we have fallen into the mire of grave sin the Father waits to meet us with love in the sacrament of Confession, ready to spread the cloak of grace over our shoulders once again. If we have been measuring our life in terms of unanswered prayers or if we have been thinking that our suffering does not include God or doubting God's presence or caring in our experience of tragedy or death, we need to return and submit ourselves to His loving plan for us no matter how mysterious or uncertain it may seem to our human limitations.
Only God's Word in sacred Scripture, handed down and proclaimed in the Church in particular here at holy Mass, can begin to give context to sin and suffering, to console us with grace and reassure us of God's power and saving love in Christ. Only the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, who truly suffered and died in faithfulness to the Father, can be for us the fullest embrace of the Father in grace, here in His house which is the Church.
The shame and revulsion resulting from sin, which threaten the dignity of the human person, are removed only by the Father, whose embrace of love in Christ is ours every time we arise and return from the experience of self-revulsion resulting from the rejection of human dignity in sin. He waits for us, runs to meet us in Christ and, because He can forgive our sins, restores completely to us once again what was lost through the abuse of our freedom.
The poverty of suffering or of feeling our prayers are unanswered also meets the comfort and faithful love of the Father who gives us the Savior, Christ His Son, to lift us out of doubt and sadness, and to walk with us the road of faith with courage and persevering love.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen.
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