“While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)
A week ago last night, 14 students that I taught in 8th grade about 12 years ago, were all gathered in New York City and during dinner they took a group picture. Many of them I haven’t heard from in a long time, but two of these kids sent me the picture separately a couple of minutes apart. I was thrilled to see them gathered together. They all grew up together in grade school and yet life, and I like to think the Lord, keeps bringing them together. Later on that night, a little past my bedtime, they called me through FaceTime and I talked to many of them for about 10 minutes. I was overjoyed to catch up with some of them that I haven’t heard from in year. Others have stayed in touch, but don’t hear from them that often.
For me, this was a Prodigal Son moment. Almost every single Sunday, I see a child come back to Church and I welcome them back just like the Merciful Father did in today’s gospel. Going back to that picture that I was sent, I know many of my old students are scattered throughout the country and world for that matter, doing great things that make me proud, yet many, but not all, have wandered far from the safe confines of the small church where we used to celebrate school Mass every Friday morning. Many times I feel like the Father in the Prodigal Son parable who sits every day waiting for them to return. Waiting for them to remember what I so lovingly taught them, and what they so lovingly embraced from the Lord when they were younger. I will admit that nothing gives me greater joy than when one of them returns home to the Church, when one of them calls me up and says, “Father, I’ve been lost and I need to go to confession.” Just like the prodigal son, they may forget briefly who they are (Christians) and where they came from, but when things don’t make sense, when things seem lost, and when “a life of dissipation” gets old and tiring and unfulfilling, they know they can walk into any church in the world and feel like they never left. And they know that they could always pick up the phone and reconnect with the priest from their childhood. (Today I’m being overly explicit, but if those kids only knew how many homilies I’ve written and posted that have been implicitly directed and written for them.)
There are many times that I sit on the steps of this church right out there and just pray for all the souls that I have encountered through my ministry and who have forgotten the Father’s love. I sit there, almost symbolically, because I know that no one is going to show up during the late hours that I sit out there, but I do it kind of to feel closer to the Merciful Father in the gospel because that ultimately should be our goal in the spiritual life: to be like Him. But for our purposes on this Fourth Sunday of Lent, I want to direct your attention to two pivotal moments in this parable. The first has to do with the younger son coming to grips and realizing that he has sinned against his Father. I was listening to Bishop Robert Barron this morning who has a different take on this admission than I do, but I find it intriguing nonetheless. When the son thinks up this plan to go and say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, “ that is like a confession. All of us prepare our confession before we go and actually utter the words to the priest. Like the prodigal son, we go over and rehearse in our mind and heart what we are going to say. But here is what is striking about this confession: the prodigal son never gets to finish it. Behold the second pivotal moment I want you to pay attention to. The Father sees his son at a distance, goes off and runs out to greet him. And when the son starts his confession, the father doesn’t let him finish. He quickly orders that his son be clothed and have his dignity restored. So many times we wander into that confessional looking as worn and as tattered as the prodigal son. What confession does, and the priest’s absolution accomplishes is restoring us to the dignity of being children of the Father: clothed in splendor and made to inherit divine life.
Like the Merciful Father in the parable, many priests sat in confessionals this weekend waiting for their children to come home. A priest friend of mine told me that he sat for four hours in his confessional and only 4 people came. Thankfully in the almost 8 hours we heard confession here at our parish, our priests never stopped receiving penitents. And while I am glad to see or hear every person that enters my confessional or sits across from me when I don’t have a confessional, I still sit there and pray for all my parishioners, all my children to surprise me like the prodigal son and enter that sacred sacramental space. Which leads me to my last story. In my first parish, every Advent and Lent, we would hold penitential services where my pastor and I would hear confessions for several hours. Now there was a mother whose son was always at football practice who would tell me that I wasn’t allowed to leave the confessional until her son showed up. So sometimes the lines were long enough that I didn’t need to wait, but sometimes I would be done for some time and I would sit there in the quiet of the church waiting for this wonderful kid to show up. He always did. What was beautiful was not his faithfulness to the sacrament or even his obedience to his mother, but that each time he would open the doors to see me sitting by the altar, he would always smile and that smile would light up the now darkened church. That smile was a confirmation of God’s mercy at work. That smile speaks to the power of the sacrament of confession. That smile is the smile that every priest has when one of their children return. That smile is a reflection of the love and mercy of God at work in our hearts. Yes God will wait for us, but this Lent, let us not wait for God to run towards us: it’s time to run back to Him!