God never tires of being the ‘Prodigal Father’
Lent concludes, strictly speaking, with the beginning of the Easter Triduum on Holy Thursday, but there is no calendar with God. Catholics who feel behind in their Lenten conversion of heart can find inspiration in the first reading of the penitential season.
In that Ash Wednesday passage from the prophet Joel, the faithful are reminded of the ever-loving Father who never gives up on drawing his children back to himself.
“Return to me with your whole heart,” says the Lord, and find your God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and relenting in punishment.”
“I’ve come to treasure those words, hearing them year after year, and to see Lent as a loving invitation from our God to return to him,” said Dominican Father Thomas Condon, speaking to about 80 priests gathered inside St. Maria Goretti Church for the March 26 Lenten Morning of Prayer for Priests.
“Some of us (priests) and our faithful parishioners may say, ‘but I haven’t gone anywhere (this Lent).’ Have we become so consumed in the busyness of Lent, (and) the stuff of life that we don’t take time for God?” asked Father Condon, noting that priests can get sidetracked on their penitential journeys due to the Lenten glut of hearing confessions, holding parish missions, stations of the cross and preparing candidates and catechumens for entry into the church at the Easter vigil.
A nudge from the Spirit
Fortunately, the Holy Spirit nudges the busy and distracted, said Father Condon, who heads the Dominicans’ Southern Province, headquartered in New Orleans.
For example, in the daily Mass reading for March 26 – the date of the priestly gathering at St. Maria Goretti – Genesis depicts God taking the lead in initiating a relationship with his children through his covenant with Abraham. It is always God who seeks us, not the other way around, Father Condon observed.
“God is always there, reaching out for us, calling us in love into a deeper relationship, establishing that relationship of friendship, and calling us back when we stray,” said Father Condon, calling on yet another image to which he turns during Lent: God as the Prodigal Son’s father – the patient parent who waits “eagerly for each son or daughter to return,” no matter how much time has elapsed or distance traveled.
“When the father sees (the Prodigal Son) from afar, he runs down the road to meet him; he doesn’t wait for him to come all the way to him and sit there very proud, and say, ‘Well, you should have been here a long time ago,’” Father Condon said. “He runs out to meet him, to meet us, to meet all of his people.”
One of the great privileges of the priesthood is to have a front-row seat at these jubilant reunions between God and his children, Father Condon said, noting that such homecomings take place regularly in priests’ offices, confessionals and reconciliation rooms.
“It’s amazing to me still, after being ordained 28 years, the people who come (to confession) and say, ‘I’m not sure why I’m here,’” he said. “Well, it’s God calling them back; it’s the Holy Spirit active in their life!’”
Door of faith
While rife with darkness and suffering, Holy Week marks “the week of our salvation,” Father Condon said, sharing a final image with his brother priests: a Fifth Century carving of the crucified Christ on the door of the Church of Santa Sabina in Rome. It is the first known artistic portrayal of Christ’s execution.
“It took the early Christians 400 years before they could actually depict Jesus on the cross, and yet he endured that for you and me,” Father Condon said.
“As we enter into Holy Week, remember the God who is always calling us back to himself with the words of eternal life, (who is) never satisfied until all his sheep are back in the fold with him once again,” Father Condon said. “What wondrous love is this. O my soul, O my soul! What wondrous love is this. O my soul!”
The prayer service concluded with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and benediction.
The Lenten Morning of Prayer for Priests was coordinated by the Office of Priest Personnel’s Priestly Life and Ministry Committee, headed by Father Otis Young. The Office of Worship provided the worship aids, and the Catholic Foundation conducted a seminar on wills and estate planning for priests.