Divine Mercy and the Church

Christ Good Shepherd

Each of us shall give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:12)

Lord Jesus came from heaven to equip us to face this, fearlessly. He set out over the hills in search of His lost sheep: me, you, us. He finds us, exhausted and disoriented, and He picks us up and puts us on His shoulders, to carry us home. His mercy means: We can give our account of ourselves to God from Jesus’ shoulders.

‘Yes, Father, I got lost. I had no hope. I had no right. Just irrational desperation.

‘But then Your Son put me on His shoulders, and here I am, ready to come to You. Even though I know I don’t deserve to be anywhere other than the nowhere to which I led my clueless self.’

The angels rejoice when Jesus puts us on His shoulders. When eternal, merciful, divine Love triumphs in human souls. When Judgment Day means Day of Rejoicing. Because the immortal Lamb went to the slaughter to save sinners.

Now, this whole mystery of salvation… Where is it? In the Mass. In the Scriptures. In the ministry of the Church.

The Savior founded His Church, to save sinners. At this point in time, it seems that His Church needs serious attention.

Everyone know who Father Tom Doyle is? A “priest with integrity,” according to the countless suffering people he has helped in his long, generous life. Father Doyle thinks we need to re-envision the Church as a kind of unstructured AA-meeting. And former-Father James Carroll wrote an essay this past summer advocating the same. Abolish the priesthood.

These men, and other scholars like them, have insights born of long experience with hypocrisy and victimization in the hierarchy of the Church. At this point, who trusts the “clerical establishment” anymore? The whole lumbering bureaucracy, made up of good men and bad, finds itself at an impasse, paralyzed, incapable of accomplishing anything to save the institution.

But even though Doyle and Carroll have their reasons for their proposal, how can we possibly have communion with God’s mercy, without a priest of Jesus Christ to minister it to us? Doyle and Carroll seem to imagine some ‘primitive state’ of the Church in which no one stood in Christ’s place at Mass. But you can’t even have a snap without a quarterback, much less gain any yards. There has never been Church without a priest, if by ‘priest’ we mean the man standing in the place of Jesus at Mass.

It is by the very teaching of the old-school Catholic religion that we know that things have gone wrong with the old-school Catholic religion. The good old days gave us clarity about good and evil. By that clarity, we see: the guardians of Tradition have governed the Church evilly.

We can’t pretend everything’s fine with the one institution qualified to give Jesus to the world. And we can’t build on any foundation other than the one Jesus laid. We have to face it: staying in communion with our Lord in His Church is going to get harder before it gets easier. But we know that His mercy endures forever.

Servility and the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt Prodigal Son

Let’s see who really knows their Bible. The two little parables that we read from Luke 15 at today’s Holy Mass: they serve as a kind of introduction to a larger, super-famous parable…

Right! The Prodigal Son.

So, let’s consider the question: Must we submit to God? Like servants or slaves? Parable of the Prodigal Son answers the question, by showing us how the mercy of God works.

When the prodigal son decides to return to his father’s house, does the young man have ‘pure’ motives?

Hardly. He intends to return as a servant, because he knows that the servants in his father’s house have it better than he has it, at the pig farm. He returns to his father’s house out of self-interest. He’s hungry. He knows his father’s servants don’t go hungry.

But not petulant or proud self-interest. Practical and realistic self-interest. He prepares himself to make a humble and genuine apology to his father for the wrongs he has done him.

It’s not like the prodigal son didn’t love his father. Even in the throes of his sinful passions, he loved him all along. He always took the goodness and kindness of his father for granted, as a given. He always loved the humane man. Life at the pig farm provided him with a contrast to gracious way his father ran his own household.

So the son always loved. But even as he approached his father’s house, the son still did not fully understand his father’s enormous generosity and kindness. He loved it and admired it, but didn’t understand it.

So the father truly took the son by surprise. When the old man would not even pause to hear the son’s full apology. And when the father would not remotely countenance the idea of the son entering the house as a servant. My son, a servant in my own home? No way, Jose. My son wears a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet, and a beautiful robe. Slaughter the fatted calf!

God knows nothing of slavish submission. He knows only pure freedom.

But for us to get there—for us to learn what pure freedom even is—we must humbly submit first. We must follow God’s law out of pure obedience.

And out of self-interest. Because a life of blind obedience to God beats the alternative.

Jubilee-Year Lesson?

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. (Luke 15:2)

The man who welcomed sinners and ate with them was?  …Jesus.  His eating with sinners especially displeased the Pharisees because?  …The Pharisees justified themselves based on their observance of purification customs.  They had transformed the ancient Temple purification rituals into little routines observed in the home.

Logo for Holy Year of MercyThis did not come out of nowhere.  The ancient nomadic forefathers of Israel had indeed distinguished themselves by the cleanliness of their camp.  So the Pharisees turned this into the distinguishing characteristic of their religion.  They measured their fidelity to God by their scrupulosity in proper household purification.

We can hardly condemn them.  It comes naturally to us, tribal creatures that we are, to suspect the hygiene practiced by people different from ourselves.  And we also know perfectly well that sharing a table with strangers, with whom we share little in common, poses big challenges.   Making conversation with people from a different clan makes for a lot of work. In human social interaction, like naturally congregates with like.

But a Christian simply cannot be satisfied with this.  When our Lord and Master walked the earth, He dealt with others at a deeper level.  Christ interacts with the innermost heart, where the one, true God and Father of all speaks.  He speaks the truth of His love.

We all possess that interior depth, regardless of color or language or hygiene customs.  We have that human depth in common.  And that interior depth is the place where we can meet a brother or sister in real friendship–as opposed to the shallow relations we can have based on the externals trappings of tribal affinity.

The jubilee Year of Mercy will soon draw to a close.  What lesson can we take from this year of special graces?  Maybe this:  cherishing in our hearts the image of Christ meeting His brethren in their innermost hearts, where we all stand together before God, as His beloved handiwork.

Heart of the Confessional

Pope Francis priests retreat

During the Year of Mercy, Holy Father has set aside certain days as ‘jubilees’ for particular segments of the Christian faithful.  Today is the Jubilee for Priests.

Pope gave a retreat to priests yesterday, in Rome.  Three talks, at three of the four major basilicas.  Then, this morning, Holy Father celebrated Mass with the retreatants in St. Peter’s Square.

There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance. (Luke 15:7)

Logo for Holy Year of MercyI can’t speak for the angels and saints, like Jesus can.  But I can say:  I have no greater joy in life than celebrating the sacrament of Penance.  We priests have a unique experience.  We celebrate Penance on both sides of the screen, so to speak.  I try to go to confession at least once a month.  And, of course, hearing confessions occupies a great deal of our time, we priests.

God forgives.  We can make a huge mess of things by committing sins.  Cleaning up the mess can mean a lot of work.  But:  when God forgives, and gives us a fresh start, everything looks different.  The future does not glower ahead, like a brewing tornado.  That’s what the future looks like to someone living in the confused dishonesty of sin.  When we confess, and the truth takes over—the truth of God’s infinite mercy—suddenly the future looks different.  It’s full of light and possibilities.  I can clean up my mess, no problem.  Not only that, I can work on building something beautiful with my life.

The love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is everywhere.  Especially in the Blessed Sacrament.  The Host is a blazing furnace of the love of Jesus’ Heart.  So is the confessional.  When we meet Him there, and unfold our own hearts, with honest repentance for our wickedness, He forgives.  With all His Heart.

The Prodigal Father

Rembrandt Prodigal Son

The son asked for his inheritance, and the Father let him go.  Maybe the young man sought adventure.  He wanted to see, to experience, to know about the world.

If going off for an adventure were a sin in and of itself, then the father would never have allowed it. But he gave his son the money.  ‘You are a free man, my son.  Go as you wish.  The world is yours.’

This father, we see, knows something of the world himself.  He knows that the world is dangerous.  And hard to navigate all by yourself.  But also beautiful and full of enchanting mysteries.

How can we not like the adventuresome son?  He starts out full of himself, to be sure.  He’s insensitive to the feelings of his father and brother.  He is tragically unrealistic about himself.  But he has courage.  He has energy.  This world has something to offer, if only we go looking for it!  Let’s have some fun!

Likable, yes.  But what’s missing?  Self-respect.  The one thing he doesn’t see is that the most wonderful place in the wonderful world is his own home.

Let’s imagine the prodigal son in the first tavern along the road.  Someone there says to him, ‘Hey, you’re a barrel of laughs, buddy.  But aren’t you…aren’t you Lord Such-a-one’s son?  The most noble, gracious, and beneficent man in this country—isn’t he your father?  Don’t you and your brother stand to inherit the great estate?

‘Gosh, here you are carousing with us.  But couldn’t you have champagne and music and everything you want—within reasonable limits of decency and religion—couldn’t you have it all right there at home?  Gosh, I remember reading in the paper that you were supposed to marry Lady So-and-so—beautiful, virtuous, mysterious, and demure.

‘Isn’t that who you are, buddy?’

So then the son crept out of that tavern and proceeded to travel farther away, to find a place where no one would know him.

Our rebellion:  The heavenly Father erects a home for us to live in, with faith for its beautiful floorboards.  He builds this house for us, full of light.  We get to share the house with people who really are not so altogether annoying–each other.  This house has order and peace, because our heavenly Father governs it.  He gives us what we need.

Above all, He gives us a certain hope:  Everything that you want, the desire that grips you in a way you can’t even understand:  You will have it.  You will be satisfied.  Do not doubt it.  Your real adventure involves saluting the sun in my sky every morning, doing your daily work, saying your prayers, and loving your neighbor—and then all will be wonderfully well, forever.

We can see where the son got his prodigality.  The father himself gives with prodigal generosity–lavishly, extravagantly.

But somewhere deep in the darkest basement of our souls, a sinister voice whispers:  ‘You don’t deserve it.  It’s too good for you.  You aren’t really a prince of this realm.  Take a walk, and find your own kind.  In the gutter.’

In the end, the adventurer’s money ran out.  In the sty with the unclean beasts, he thought to himself:  ‘What kind of adventure is this?’  The world runs its course, and its pleasures do not satisfy.

But the lovable young man still had one thing left:  himself.  He paused.  He stopped.  He found a moment of silence and truth.  And he saw into the center of himself, where he finally found the true basis of his self-respect:  a compass pointing to his father.

The compass had always been there; the son just hadn’t looked at it.  He had ruined himself by seeking pleasures that were beneath him.  But now he took notice of the inner compass, and he remembered that his home stood waiting for him.  He could still find shelter under his father’s beautiful roof.  And he finally understood that his own home really was the most wonderful place in the world.

Here’s a question.  Where is the image of Christ in the Parable of the Prodigal Son?  Aren’t the parables supposed to include an image of Christ?  After all, we see Christ clearly enough in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which can also be found in the 15th chapter of the gospel of Luke.  In the parable of the Lost Sheep, Christ is the shepherd.  But where is Christ in the Parable of the Prodigal Son?

Christ crucified actually lights up the parable of the Prodigal Son so that we can see what’s there.  We see the lordly, generous father, so prodigally generous that he won’t even listen to his son’s entire confession of sin.  Instead, he just starts the music and pours champagne, because he has his son back home again.

How do we know that this unfathomably gracious and loving father is our Father?  How is the face of the infinitely merciful heavenly Father revealed?  One way:  Christ crucified.  Christ crucified is the light that shows us that the prodigal son’s father is our Father.

Invested in Sheep


One important thing for us to try and remember when reading the Holy Scriptures: For the ancient nomad, there was only one bank account you could have, namely animals.

We get statements in the mail. The ancient nomad heard the sound of his wealth bleating in the clover. We write checks or execute electronic fund transfers. The ancient nomad sheared, or slaughtered, or sold a few head.

We make deposits. The ancient nomad bred his animals, or acquired more by shrewd dealing. We talk to accountants about income projections for our savings and investments, with an eye to retirement. The ancient nomad ran his hands over the stubbly backs of his lowing animals and prayed: May no disease, no thief, no predator bring you to grief, O future of mine.

We fear stock market crashes. The ancient nomad feared wolves in the night.

Ninety-nine sheep huddled together, on the way to the fold, as the sun sets: Safe. Money in the bank.

On the other hand, one lone sheep, on a hillside somewhere: Tasty looking.

God has no need of us. But the mystery of Christ’s revelation teaches us this: Even though the heavenly Father enjoys perfect happiness and blessedness from ages unto ages, He nonetheless imagines a future with us. We are His precious money, His wealth, and He has an immeasurable zeal for the safety of His investment. He showed us on the Cross how intense is His desire to cash us in, when the time comes, at full value.

The Home We Belong In

What does ‘prodigal’ mean? Right. Recklessly wasteful. Lavish, extravagant—but in a destructive way.

The son asked for his inheritance, and the Father let him go. The young man sought adventure. He wanted to see, to experience, to know about the world beyond his home.

Bilbo_handsThe older brother had no such sense of adventure. For this reason, we like him less. His younger brother might have squandered his inheritance in a thoroughly undignified manner. But at least the prodigal son never whined, never pouted like a baby. The older son seems not to have appreciated just how wonderful his father’s house really was.

The father anchors the whole parable, an infallibly wise and loving presence. If going off for an adventure, like Bilbo Baggins—if that were a sin in and of itself, then the father would never have allowed the younger son to go.

But he did let his son go. He gave his son the money. You are a free man, my son. Go as you wish. The world is yours.

This father, we see, knows the world. He knows that the world is, indeed, a place of adventure. Dangerous, yes. Hard to navigate all by yourself, yes. But fundamentally evil? No.

Continue reading “The Home We Belong In”

Mystery of the Lost Coin

smadehChapter fifteen of St. Luke’s gospel is famous for containing: the parable of the Lost Sheep and the parable of the Prodigal Son.

In between these two beautiful parables, there is a strange one, the parable of the Lost Coin:

Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it?

And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’

In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

Please do not get me wrong: I mean no disrespect to our Lord. But I have always found this parable strange.

coins necklaceSure, losing one-tenth of your savings is something that would lead you to go searching, lamp in hand. But there seems to be more to this than the monetary value of the coin…

There is:

According to the old customs of Palestine, brides do not wear wedding rings. They wear veils embroidered with coins, or necklaces made of coins. The coins symbolize the dowry they brought to the marriage. The coins ARE the wedding ring, the symbol of the marriage bond.

The woman in the parable, searching the house frantically with lighted lamp, is searching for her lost wedding ring.

(Hat tip to H.V. Morton.)