Sunday, March 10, 2013

Welcome Home

I spent yesterday morning out in the bright sun ice fishing with my sister and her my cheeks this Laetare Sunday are just as rosy as my vestments!

   Fourth Sunday of Lent   C 
The children in catechism class were being quizzed
on the parable of the prodigal son.
So the teacher asked,
“Who was most sorry when the prodigal son returned home?” 
One boy gave it a lot of deep thought before he answered,
“The fattened calf!”

A few years ago in another North Country parish,
the locals were making their way
through these forty days of Lent just as we are—
including preparations for several members of the community
who would be joining the Catholic Church at Easter.
Within that group of converts to the faith
was one whose previous way of life was rather widely known:
he had been a doctor who for years provided abortions.
If his past was no secret, neither were the concerns of some
who would soon become his fellow parishioners.
As Holy Week drew nearer,
the doctor took part in all the various rites and rituals
which generally occur for such candidates at Sunday Mass
during this sacred season.
And the grumbling continued:
“It’s one thing if he’s turned from his evil ways
and decided to become a Catholic.
But do they really have to parade him around in front of everybody?
I mean, we all know who he is and what he’s done.
Sure, people can change…but it just doesn’t seem right.”

That episode came back to me
as I reflected on the parable of the prodigal son this week.
In particular, the attitude of the older brother came to mind.
He’s terribly resentful—
not so much of his kid brother’s wastefulness and wandering,
but of his father’s warm welcome.
The boy’s come home fully deserving punishment,
but what his father gives him instead is a great big party.
How can that be fair?
Sure, maybe he’s changed…but it just doesn’t seem right.

Our heavenly Father’s mercy is not only kindly and generous,
but often downright scandalous—
at least, from a worldly perspective, anyway.
We manipulate his benefits
and exploit his blessings time and again,
yet all we have to do is turn back to him—
to even just begin to admit the error of our ways—
and he refuses to count our transgressions against us.
Unlike in the parable,
in the Most Blessed Trinity it’s “like Father, like Son.”
Isn’t this the very charge the scribes and Pharisees
also level against Jesus?
The same accusation which causes him
to tell this parable in the first place?
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!”

I think of all this especially during this Year of Faith.
A major focus of this special year is to reach out
to those Catholics who—for one reason or another—
no longer actively practice their faith.
But what sort of welcome do we give them
if and when they decide to return?
Consider—for example—how full the pews get
on Christmas Eve or Easter morning.
Do we “regulars” just get restless and resentful
that someone’s sitting in our usual seat
or there’s no room left out in the parking lot?
Or can we rejoice to see the place packed
and make these folks feel more at home?
Or how about the young family
whose children are a bit squirmy
or a little extra noisy sometimes?
If I consistently got scowled at when I came to Mass,
I might consider coming only once and a while, too!

Saint Paul makes our role abundantly clear:
God has given us—all of us—a ministry of reconciliation.
We are to be ambassadors for Christ!
What appeal is God making though you?
Now, I’m not saying it needs to be all confetti and party hats.
The fattened calf—to be sure—will be quite relieved to know
there are no plans to change the menu at the Lord’s Table!
But a simple smile goes an awfully long way.
As does a handshake.  Or a quiet, “Hello.”
Or sliding down in the pew
to make room for somebody who has just arrived.
Studies have continually shown
that most Catholics who leave to join another religious community
do so not because of the Church’s doctrine or disinclines,
but because they feel a lack of community and connection.
If we have any hope of helping folks
to renew and deepen their Catholic faith,
we must first begin by making them feel
like they really, truly belong.

On this Laetare Sunday,
let us resolve to celebrate and rejoice
together with our Father in heaven
whenever a brother or sister of ours,
who was dead in sin, has come to life again—
whenever one who was lost has been found.

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