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Tom Finneran: On The Pope and The Prodigal Son

Friday, March 15, 2013


From an eyewitness in St. Peter’s Square: “It is unbelievable. Thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of people, standing in pouring rain for hours on end, singing, praying, laughing, crying, so filled with hope and joy and excitement. We laughed and cried too, as this is our faith and our Church, choosing its next spiritual leader. I've never seen or experienced anything like this in my entire life.” So spoke my wife on Wednesday evening in a call from Rome.

She is there right now, with 19 friends, more than a dozen of whom graduated from St. Gregory’s High School in Dorchester in 1971. Yes, they are parochial school graduates, taught by nuns, and ever more appreciative of the witness those nuns gave to the word and works of God. And of course they tell nun jokes and nun stories because even nuns themselves do that.

The trip to Italy was planned as part of a milestone birthday they will all be celebrating fairly soon. And we, you and I, are wise enough not to ask, or even guess at which milestone birthday a 1971 high school graduate might be celebrating. Some things are best left alone.

When Pope Benedict surprised the world with the announcement of his resignation, my wife thought there was a chance that her group might still be in Italy when the new Pope was chosen. And, as the dates of the conclave were announced, in perfect alignment with their itinerary and their stay in Rome, she became increasingly excited. Thus, the last three days have been a dream come true for her as she gave personal witness to history and hope, faith and friends, and the awesome peaceful love of a noble and glorious Church. She cannot begin to describe the joyful faith of those that gathered and waited in the soaking rains to welcome their Holy Father. By her estimate, they were within thirty feet (!) of the new Pope when he offered his first public blessing and prayer. How cool is that? From Mattapan to St. Peter’s Square, it’s been a journey of joy for her and her friends. I must remember to thank the Pope!

And may God bless and guide Pope Francis in his labors.

This past Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32) was about Jesus’ legendary parable of the prodigal son. It is a difficult Gospel for me. Given my struggle with it, I clearly lack an appreciation of the magnitude of God’s love for all of us and his unconditional joy when a “lost one” is found. I founder on the perceived injustice done to the older son, the son who has obeyed and served his father so well for so long, and for whom there is no reward and no welcoming party.

The other son, the prodigal son, has squandered his life, his fortune, his name, his reputation, and even his family on “dissipation”—i.e., wine, women, and song—until finally, at the point of desperate starvation, he returns home and asks merely to be treated as a hired hand on his father’s farm. His father’s joy at his lost son’s return prompts him to throw a lavish welcome home party, leading to an angry and frustrated response from the older obedient brother for whom no party has ever been planned. My sympathy lies with that older brother and that is where I fail the test of my faith.

Yes, I can recognize and embrace the joy of the shepherd finding his lost lamb. But, at the same time, an injustice has occurred, a slight has been given, a faithful service has been overlooked.

The immensity of a love that forgives sinners so readily is hugely appealing to me, a sinner. Yet, as a human being, with my many limitations, I’m still looking for that element of fairness and justice between the father and his sons.

I think that over the years, as I get older and wiser (perhaps), I can relate a little more to the message at the heart of this parable. Every parent suffers the dreadful fear of “losing” a child—to addictions, to sloth, to wayward companions, to evil, to confusion, or to crime. And, I suppose there is no greater joy—perhaps relief is a better word to use—than to recover such a lost child. Yet, as mentioned, my struggle with this gospel endures, hoping at least for a pat on the back of the older obedient son. Thank you Lord, for putting up with me in my struggle. I’m trying—to give witness, to understand, and to grow.


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