Mothers spend a lot of time teaching their babies the meaning of "hot." “The stove is hot, don’t touch!” Soon the baby is running around pointing at items, announcing to the world that they’re "hot." At first, he has no direct experience of the meaning of "hot.” In time, the baby learns the wages of disobedience, perhaps with blisters as the evidence of his education. He also learns there is a self-interest in obedience.
The parable of the prodigal son has a similar lesson. The son takes the privilege and comforts of living with his father for granted. So he takes off and squanders his inheritance in dissolute living. He ruins his life. As with the child who emerges with a new respect for mom, the suffering of the prodigal son leads him to return to the safety of his father's house, where he knows he will receive a square meal. He learned that self-serving obedience is not too high a price to pay for the comforts of home.
Like his brother, we may object to the prodigal son's return, arguing that the prodigal son's repentance was not pure enough. Didn't he repent because of his fearful circumstances? Wouldn't it have been better if he had returned because of his love for his father and family? All these reservations are quite reasonable, but they miss the point.
The parable refers to God's justice and his mercy. While there is no compromise with God's fairness—the son, after all, honestly admits his sinfulness—God's compassion allows the prodigal son to return even if his motives are imperfect. The realization of his dependence on the father is the beginning of wisdom.
After we confess our sins in Confession, we usually recite the Act of Contrition with these words: "O my God I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments..." Fear of hell is not the perfect motive for repentance, but it’s a good beginning. Later in the prayer, we add, "...but most of all because they offend Thee, my God..." We have perfect contrition when we are sorry for our sins because we have offended his Majesty, Who is all good and deserving of all of our love.
But there is nothing at all wrong with fearing hell. The Lord allowed the prodigal son to experience a foretaste of hell precisely to bring him to repentance. If we are honest, most of us will acknowledge that we are drawn to Confession first of all because we fear the punishment connected with sin. So a priest is justified when he occasionally warns us of the fires of hell. The responsibility comes with his job description because hell is a reality.
Because hell is real, it threatens first the soul of the priest himself. So among the traditional spiritual exercises of the priest is a periodic meditation on hell. The meditation instills at least imperfect contrition and the admission of his sins, reminding the priest of the torments of hell. The Lord uses the image of fire in the Scriptures because burning is the most fearful of all physical suffering. But if the fires of hell torment the body after the Last Judgement for eternity, the soul is tortured all the more.
This devotional exercise, the meditation on hell, reminds the priest of the dangers that come from failing to take the opportunities for Confession. Every mortal sin concealed from the confessional comes to mind. The imagination tortures the soul, presenting it with images of what everlasting life might have been in heaven, but now forever lost. Furthermore, as revealed by the Lord in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, there is an abyss that separates the just and the damned. And there will be no crossing from one side to the other. His meditation reminds the priest that he is not immune to temptation. He is, in fact, a target of the evil one.
The devil targets the priest because God grants the priest the awesome power and responsibility to raise his hand in absolution. Aware of that power and responsibility, the priest will spend many hours in the confessional. He will be quick off the mark in responding to emergency calls. A priest who has a healthy and self-serving fear of hell will thus serve his people well.
Many years ago, a nurse called me with a pastoral emergency. The nurse knew that a young lady, afflicted with a behavior-related terminal illness, was near death. Although she registered as a Catholic, the patient did not express any interest in the sacraments. Her parents and family also did not show any interest in the faith. I almost said to the nurse, "Then there's nothing more I can do." But by the grace of God— and the persistence of the nurse—I didn't.
When I entered the hospital room—and I do not say this lightly because I’m not prone to pious melodrama—I had a real sense of the presence of evil. The woman was in delirium. I thought I was too late for a conscious response from her. So I took her hand, and repeated in her ear, "I am a Catholic priest, are you sorry for your sins?" She did not respond. I nearly gave up. One more time: "Are you sorry for your sins?"
Finally, her face changed, and she became serene. She said in a clear voice, "Yes, I'm sorry for my sins." With that, I raised my hand and prayed the words of absolution. She slumped into her final coma.
The health of a parish can be measured in many ways: by its appearances; by the number of people at weekday Mass; by the number of people at Sunday Mass. But the healthiest parishes are those parishes which have long lines at the confessionals.
The Father is eager to forgive us even when our sorrow is imperfect and self-serving.
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