A young woman with an attitude, whom we’ll call Nadine, rebelled against her parents’ religious beliefs and practices, saying, “I’ve had it with your God. I don’t need Him, or you—so I’m leaving.” Nadine left home and went off to the big city, eager to pursue a worldly lifestyle. However, her so-called “freedom” wasn’t quite what she expected it to be; desperate over her failure to find a job or make friends, she eventually became a streetwalker, or prostitute. She hated the lifestyle, but blamed it on her parents. After a few years she heard by chance that her father had died, but she hardened her heart and, in her stubbornness, became more entrenched in her sinful and rebellious way of life.
In the meantime her grieving mother, who had learned of Nadine’s whereabouts, made her way to the city, taking a stack of flyers she had made. The sheet consisted of her own photograph—her smiling, gray-haired face—with the words, “Nadine, I still love you—come home!” The mother posted these throughout the run-down section of the city she had heard her daughter frequented. One morning Nadine wandered into a rescue mission, saw the photo of her mother, read the simple message, and began crying. She was deeply touched in her heart, and immediately began walking home—though, because of the distance, she didn’t arrive until early the next morning. She was embarrassed and afraid, so she knocked timidly on the back door—and to her shock, the door flew open almost on its own. Nadine was worried: did this mean someone had broken in? She rushed inside, calling “Mom, it’s me! It’s me!” and hurried up to her mother’s room. Fortunately her mother was unharmed, and the two fell into each other’s arms, crying and rejoicing. Nadine said, “I was so worried: the door was open, and I thought someone had broken in!” Her mother gently replied, “No, dear; from the day you left here, that door has never been locked” (Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul, p. 41). If it’s the case that a mother’s love is far greater than a daughter’s sins, this is infinitely more true of our heavenly Father. The only limits to His mercy are those we foolishly impose by our stubbornness and pride. Jesus calls us to humble ourselves and deliberately choose to trust in God’s love for us—and this is the best thing we can ever do for ourselves and for the world.
The story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:1-32) is perhaps Our Lord’s most famous and important parable—for everyone needs God’s mercy, but many people are afraid to seek it. Indeed, this is one of the devil’s most dangerous tricks: convincing sinners that God is so furious and disgusted with them, they dare not turn back to Him and seek forgiveness. However, the truth is radically different. We see in the Book of Exodus (32:7-11, 13-14) that despite His righteous anger, God allowed Moses to intercede on the people’s behalf. Moses was a forerunner or sign of Jesus, Who came to reconcile us to the Father. St. Paul (1 Timothy 1:12-17) speaks of himself as a foremost example of a sinner needing reconciliation, insisting that, through Jesus, all humanity can be cleansed of sin and restored to grace—if only we trust.
A mother and her little girl were waiting for someone at an airport. The mother gave her daughter a cookie and a little cup of juice to keep her occupied, but someone brushed past the mother, causing her to bump her girl. As a result, the child was covered with the juice and crumbs from the cookie. At that moment the husband and father came into view, neatly dressed after returning from a business trip, and the girl shouted, “Daddy!” A woman who observed all this thought to herself, “No way is he going near that messy child; at best, he’ll settle for patting her on the head.” To her great surprise, however, the father ran to his little girl, scooped her into his arms, and held her close, despite her untidy state. He kissed his wife, and continued holding his daughter close as they walked over to the baggage claim area (William J. Bausch, Once Upon A Gospel, p. 10). This is a wonderful illustration of how God relates to us. He doesn’t care that we’re stained by our sins and covered by the crumbs of our pride and stubbornness; He wants to hold us close to His heart, no matter how unworthy we may be—if only we give Him the chance.
I think this means three things for us in particular. First of all, we must never be afraid to turn back to God, no matter what we’ve done or how unworthy we may feel. This is especially true in terms of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I’m guessing some of you may have been away from the confessional for many years, partly out of fear or shame. I can promise you that whenever I hear a penitent begin with the words, “Father, it’s been many years since my last confession,” my levels of sympathy and compassion go up a couple of notches; I—like most priests—am eager to be an instrument of God’s mercy and grace in such situations. The devil wants to make you proud, stubborn, and afraid to confess your sins. Don’t let him win; come to the Sacrament—you have nothing to fear.
Secondly, knowing that God wants to embrace us with His loving mercy should make us grateful and eager to come still closer to Him. The more we truly understand and experience God’s love for us, the more we should cherish and practice our Catholic faith. Attending Mass, reading the Bible, praying, being active in the parish, and using our opportunities to help others, can all be changed or transformed from things we’re supposed to do into things we want to do. The Gospel is truly Good News, so our efforts to grow in holiness can and should bring us great joy and satisfaction.
Thirdly, God wants us to reach out to and welcome back sinners in His Name—much as Nadine’s mother did for her. This means not criticizing or judging sinners, but praying for them and—if the opportunity arises—speaking to them in a gentle and encouraging manner. We might simply say something like, “You know, God has never stopped loving you, so don’t be afraid to turn back to Him,” or “When you’re ready to go back to church and go to confession, I’ll be happy to go with you, if that will make it easier,” or “Remember the story of the prodigal son, and how his father welcomed him back: God is just as eager to have you return to Him.” Our encouraging words and loving example are so important, and the Lord is pleased with us when we use these opportunities. It’s been said that while Justice is God’s middle name, Mercy is His first name—and the more we embrace this truth and share it with others, the more we are, even now, part of the Kingdom of God.