Forgiveness and Welcome

The following homily was given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde on March 10, Saturday of the Second Week of Lent, during the Annual Meeting of the Arlington Diocesan Council of Catholic Women at All Saints Parish in Manassas.

Have you ever held a diamond in the light? If so, what did you see? No doubt, as you held that single stone, turning it slowly in the light, you saw many configurations. Yes, only one stone — one reality — yet many different aspects.

I am using this brief description as an analogy, relating it to the parable which Jesus is telling us in today's Gospel account. The one Parable of the Prodigal Son has many aspects or lessons. Obviously, this parable is very familiar to us. When we hear it proclaimed, we immediately recall a very basic lesson which Jesus is teaching us through the parable: Our God is a welcoming Father, Who is always willing to forgive us all our sins. As Psalm 103 reminds us — the psalm we prayed just a short time ago, "He pardons all your iniquities, he heals all your ills. He will not always chide, nor does he keep his wrath forever. [Yes], the Lord is kind and merciful." We need to hear again and again how forgiving and merciful the Lord is — not as an excuse to continue sinning, but as the reason to persevere in our struggles against the evil one and to get up when we do fall into sin. This welcoming and forgiving love of the Father we tangibly receive in the sacrament of reconciliation, what we popularly call "confession."

This parable is so familiar yet new lessons can be learned as we attentively reflect on the many aspects within this one parable. Let us today look at two additional lessons.

First, the Father in the parable never gives up on his younger son, even though he left home, breaking his father's heart, and then squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. Yes, this son treated his father badly and lived horribly, indeed sinfully. Nonetheless, his father kept hoping, kept praying, kept watching. As Jesus describes the scene for us, "While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion." Imagine the scene: the father going out every day to the top of the hill and looking out into the distance, hoping to see his son walking down the road! Then, one day, his hope was fulfilled, his prayer was answered, his watching was rewarded! He saw his son off in the distance. What did he do? Wait until he got home, so he could give him a lecture? No! "He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him." Then, he ordered his servants to prepare a feast to welcome him home. "Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found."

So many of us find ourselves in a similar situation. In so many of our families, someone is no longer practicing the Catholic faith or even has left the Church entirely. Parents and grandparents especially are heartbroken. Agonizing questions arise in their hearts: Why did this happen? Is it my fault? What could I have done differently or better? What is there to do? Like the father in the parable, we must always hope, continually pray and patiently watch and wait. We must do what Saint Monica did regarding her headstrong and rebellious son Augustine. She prayed and prayed, she fasted and wept; she never gave up hope. And in the end, thirty years later, Augustine was converted and became a great saint! He records his mother's words in his Confessions: "My son, there was only one reason why I wanted to stay a little longer in this life, and that was that I should see you a Catholic before I died. Now God has granted me this beyond my hopes." Yes, like the father in the parable, like Saint Monica, we must hope, pray and watch, never giving up.

Second, the older son was so unlike his father, unwilling to forgive his brother and welcome him home. Notice his attitude in the parable: he was angry and jealous. He refused to enter the house. We can almost hear him complaining to his father: "Why should this son of yours get off so easy when I've never left you and tried always to please you? It is not fair! He should not be treated so kindly, so generously, so mercifully!"

Are we sometimes like this older son? A person who left the Church years ago finally returns at the last minute. Do we rejoice and give thanks? Or, deep down, do we feel that somehow this is not fair. After all, we never left! More concretely, what is our attitude towards persons who have had an abortion and now bitterly regret their action? Do we welcome them home? Do we help them to find sacramental forgiveness and competent counseling? Another example: Do we rejoice when converts enter the Church? Whom do we resemble: the older son or the forgiving, welcoming father?

Yes, there are many lessons to be learned by reflecting on this one parable! Today, strengthened by God's Word, let us renew our hope, our prayer and our watchfulness when loved ones leave the home of the Church and no longer practice. Let us rejoice when sinners return, because we too have sinned and have known God's mercy. God is always a forgiving and merciful Father, and since we are created in His image, we can do nothing else but imitate Him.

The three doctors of the Church whom you especially honor as members of the Arlington Diocesan Council of Catholic Women were deeply aware of the Father's forgiving and welcoming love for sinners. St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux each pointed to this merciful love in their writings. May their combined intercession help us to relearn the lessons which Jesus is teaching us today, so that we may both experience more deeply God's forgiving and welcoming love in our lives and then more fully live this love in our forgiveness and welcome of others. "The Lord is kind and merciful" and so must we be! Amen.

Bishop Paul S. Loverde

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Bp. Paul S. Loverde is the bishop of the Diocese of Arlington in Virginia.

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