4th Sunday of Lent (Laetare) 2013
March 10, 2013
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church, Springfield, Va.
In today’s Gospel Jesus tells one of His most beloved and famous parables: the story of the Prodigal Son.
When we read this we tend to focus on the forgiveness of the Father
–and rightly so—this is largely the point of the parable,
as it helps us to understand the infinite love of God.
We might also tend focus on the prodigal son,
either on his sins, or on his repenting of his sins—or both.
And again, rightly so, because we can’t understand the love of the father
unless we understand the wretchedness of the son.
But I don’t’ think we can understand
either the love of the father or the sins of the son,
until we understand one basic thing:
the inheritance that the son “squandered.”
The Gospel doesn’t tell us exactly what it is he inherited, but we can imagine.
First of all we know the father was probably very wealthy.
We know he had multiple servants.
And that he had property so large that when the older son was “out in the field”
he was apparently so far away they couldn’t get word to him
that his brother had come home.
And we know the father wasn’t just a farmer with a lot of land
—he also had lots of nice things,
so that he could order:
“Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and …
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.”
And then think about this:
when the father “divided the property”
and the younger son “collected all his belongings and set off,”
it’s not like the son walked off with land and cattle and sheep.
No… It seems like his father had enough in currency
—coins and jewels and such—
that he could pay his son off in that and the son could take it with him.
And amazingly enough, even after giving half of his estate to his prodigal son,
he clearly still had a huge estate left.
In short, the father was really rich.
But you know, odds are he didn’t just earn that overnight.
He probably worked hard for what he had.
I mean, look at his eldest son—he was out working in the field,
a lesson of hard work he clearly learned from the father he idolized.
Even so, there’s a good chance that the father
probably inherited a lot of his wealth from his father,
who had probably inherited something from his father and so on…
Each generation building up and adding to what the inheritance
he’d been entrusted with.
This is what the son demands to have from his father—half of this.
And all this vast wealth this is what the son
“squandered ….on a life of dissipation.”
As Catholics we also have a great inheritance.
A huge estate larger than anyone can begin to fathom,
has been passed down to us from our forbearers.
A treasury of doctrine, spirituality, liturgy and prayer.
An understanding of God and the World, of morality,
and profound theological insights into all this,
so that we understand the teachings of Christ not cold worthless words,
but as rich lustrous multifaceted gems.
An incredibly vast and rich treasure rooted in scripture,
handed down by the apostles,
clarified and illuminated by the writings of
the great, brilliant and holy fathers, doctors and saints of the church:
in successive generations:
Wojtyla and Ratzinger in the 21st century,
building on the work of Saint Theresa in the 16th,
who built on Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th
who built on Saint Gregory in the 7th,
who built on Saint Augustine in the 5th,
who built on Saint Irenaeus in the 2nd,
who built on the teaching of Apostles themselves.
Giants standing on the shoulders of giants.
Treasure compounding on treasure.
We’ve inherited all this.
But like the rich young man, we are wont to squander it all in a life of dissipation.
Earlier this year Pope Benedict asked us to celebrate a “Year of Faith”,
in particular, to mark the beginning, 50 years ago, in 1963,
of the second Vatican Council—Vatican II as it’s popularly called.
At that council the bishops from all over the world gathered under the leadership
of first Pope John and then Pope Paul,
not to define any new dogma or to condemn some heresy,
but merely to figure out how to share
that rich inheritance of wisdom and holiness with modern man,
so that the great treasury might not be hidden or hoarded away,
or thrown away or wasted or lost,
but rather wisely invested in modern man, if you will.
Not to spend it on foolish on passing things,
like one enjoys rich foods one night and goes hungry the next,
but to enjoyed as a family buys a beautiful new house with lots of land,
and lives in happiness with their children and grandchildren.
Kind of like the father in today’s parable.
But as Pope Benedict used to remind us so often,
something strange happened after the Council.
Some in the Church began to demand and take their inheritance
and in a very real sense, to squander it.
For example, some took the rich moral teaching of the Church,
and instead of building on it,
wasted it to buy into heresies and worldly philosophies
that make a mockery of our inheritance.
Suddenly, for them, all sorts of sins just disappeared, especially mortal sins
—as the ethics of the secular culture became their standard
rather than the inherited wisdom of Christ and His Church.
Many traded the church’s profound wisdom
on the fundamental goodness of marriage and sexuality
reflecting the love of God himself
and the innate dignity of each human person
–they traded this for a relativist and utilitarian view of man,
“if it feels good do it.”
Some took the treasury of liturgical rites of the Church,
and traded reverence and communion with God
for banality and trendiness.
Some took the vast and profound treasury of spiritual theology and prayer,
and exchanged it for faddish psychological therapy
and even pagan practices.
So much we inherited, such a vast treasury.
And so much squandered away by so many.
On the other hand, in many ways the Popes of the last 50 years
have resembled the father in today’s parable.
Pope Paul, in particular was like the father at the beginning of the parable,
trying to be a loving and respectful
and allowing some of his precocious spiritual children
to take and experiment with their inheritance,
investing it in new ways, if you will.
All too often, as I say, they turned out to be prodigal sons.
Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, on the other hand,
were in some ways like the father at the end parable,
recognizing what had been wasted,
but also welcoming the prodigal children
to come home and share with the great wealth still preserved there.
I think particularly of Pope Benedict.
When he was just a Cardinal in charge of protecting the Doctrine of the Faith,
I remember how patient he was with theologians
who were teaching the craziest things.
How patiently he dealt with the famous theologian, Fr. Hans Kung,
a brilliant mind, but an absolute heretic.
And yet Cardinal Ratzinger spent years trying to reason with him,
always ready to forgive, to welcome him home.
So much so that just months after his election as Pope
he invited Kung to the Vatican—again, trying to coax him back home.
I also think of Benedict’s efforts to reconcile with the Orthodox and Anglicans. —especially his efforts to make it easy for Anglicans to come home.
Granted, the Anglicans left the Church almost 500 years ago,
but when large groups of Anglicans
wanted to come home to the Catholic Church.
their Holy Father Benedict ran out to meet them,
offering them all sorts of concessions
to help them preserve the precious inheritance
of their unique ancient English but Catholic heritage.
And I think of his many efforts to bring back the Traditionalist Catholics
who had distanced themselves from the rest of the Church.
Although many were trying to protect the Church’s inheritance,
in the process many wound up disobeying the Popes time and time again,
and so becoming like the older son in today’s story
—who had stayed at home,
but now refused to enter his father’s house.
Like the loving father in today’s parable, Benedict also went out to bring them in,
praising their fidelity,
but gently coaxing them to take their place at their father’s table.
And so he restored the ancient rite of the Mass so important to all of us,
because it is a rich jewel in our inheritance.
In all these and many more ways Pope Benedict, and John Paul before him,
have welcomed so many home to share
in an inheritance so vast and profound,
that though some may squander their portion,
the fundamental treasury can never be lost.
Especially since it’s protected by a security system more impenetrable
than Fort Knox or Norton or McAfee
—the grace and power of the God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Which is, of course, made manifest in a particular way
through that priceless heirloom of having a spiritual father
to watch over and increase our inheritance: the Pope.
All this is why Pope Benedict called us to celebrate
“A Year of Faith” in the Church.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II,
and a call to re-consider and to re-appreciate the Church’s inheritance,
and to consider how that’s so often been squandered.
We think of all of this in a particular way
as the conclave to elect a new pope opens this Tuesday.
And we so realize how important this is,
and also trust that the Lord will provide a good and loving Holy Father
to guide us in the appreciating our inheritance.
And we also think of this in a particular way today, at the half-way point in Lent,
about how we ourselves as individuals
have squandered our Catholic inheritance.
By our baptism you and I inherited this vast spiritual wealth of the Church,
but what have we done with it?
Have allowed ourselves to follow the prodigal sons
who squandered their Catholic inheritance after Vatican II,
trading them in for worldly philosophies and values?
Have we traded the rich prayer life of the Church
for browsing the internet or watching cable?
Have we treated the treasure chest of Scripture as just a bunch of pious sayings,
paying lip service to the ones that make us feel good,
and completely ignoring, or even rejecting the ones
that are even the slightest bit demanding?
Do we follow the Church’s moral teaching,
an amazing treasure chest full of wisdom
explaining how to discern truth from lies, good from evil, right from wrong?
Or do we trade that in for values we see on TV or the movies,
or the opinions of social activists?
We’ll spend hours at the gym or on the golf course recreating ourselves,
but do take a few minutes to go to confession
or time in the morning to go morning Mass,
to let the Lord work on re-creating us?
But as we admit to ourselves how we’ve squandered so much,
we also remember how eager God to bring us back into his Home,
to share with us even greater riches than we ever imagined.
Because even though we may have been wasting our share,
the treasure of our Catholic faith is never really depleted.
The only thing that’s really wasted is our time and our lives.
But if we come home and admit our sinfulness—our waste—
he will welcome us home and open to us the riches of his Kingdom
stored up, protected and increased all these centuries in His Church.
As we continue now in the celebration of Holy Mass,
perhaps the most magnificent jewel in our inheritance,
we thank the good Lord for his ineffable generosity
poured out on us from the Cross,
and stored up, built up and measured out to us in his Church.
Let us remember the great gem of our inheritance, the papacy,
that guides and protects this treasure,
and pray for the cardinals has they elect our next Holy Father on earth.
And let us pray that our heavenly Father
will forgive us for squandering so much of what he has given us,
confident in his mercy,
and rejoicing in his promises of immeasurable treasures yet to come.