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Fourth Sunday of Lent

March 6, 2016
Reflection by Professor Thomas Groome
Director, Church in the 21st Century Center

Thomas Groome, Professor of Theology and Religious Education at Boston College, is completing his fortieth year of teaching at BC. He also serves as Director of BC's Church in the 21st Century Center. Tom is widely recognized as one of the leading Catholic religious educators in the world and is known for his commitment to integrating faith with the everyday of life. One of his many widely read books is What Makes us Catholic: Gifts for Life (Harper Collins).  

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent:
Joshua 5: 9A, 10-12
2 Corinthians 5: 17-21
Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32
 

Come Home for Easter

As a committed Catholic Christian, I find the Pew reports on religion in America alarming - and discouraging. The latest study (May 2015) indicates that almost 13% of Americans now identify themselves as “former Catholics”; this would represent some 40 million people – in the US alone. I wonder what my Church is doing that is so effective in driving people away – and how can we stop doing it?

Then mainline Protestant and Catholic churches continue to lose members at an alarming rate – approximately seven percent in the past seven years, with a corresponding increase in the “nones” by way of religious affiliation. The highest drop off is among millennials (born 1981-1995), with young Catholic women leaving the Church at an even higher rate than their Protestant counterparts.  So we are losing mostly our young adults and particularly the potential leadership of our young women – in other words, our future.  

Might today’s Gospel reading of the Prodigal Son, perhaps the favorite of all of Jesus’ parables, lend some wisdom to parents (or grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.) who are concerned for the unfolding faith of some young adult.  But first . . .

Pause and Reflect

  • Name what you think are the main reasons for the fall-off in Catholic and mainline Protestant affiliation, especially among millennials?
  • What might help to stem the tide?

A Prodigal Parent

Easter

Today’s parable could well be renamed “The Prodigal Parent” because of the father’s extravagant love. Indeed it reflects the prodigal love of both fathers and mothers toward sons and daughters, so let us reflect on it inclusively. Apropos our millennials who leave for “a distant country,” I suggest that the parable has at least four gems of wisdom.

First, the NRSV translation says that while away the prodigal “came to himself.” Developmental psychologists say that some young people need to reject their conventional faith (e.g. of their family) in order to come to their own. Put another way, at least some may need to go to “a distant land” in order to “come to themselves.” Note, too, that the second son who stayed home also had his rebellion from conventional faith as he talks back to his Father, refusing to go to the feast. So rather than having failed, parents of prodigals or rebels may have succeeded – in giving their young person the confidence to leave home to reach for their own faith – that is truly their own.

Second, the text suggests that the Prodigal Parent is on the look-out for their wandering child, scanning the horizon, hoping against hope for their return. Upon sighting, the Parent’s heart is “filled with compassion” (literally, a “gut” feeling) and rushes out to welcome. Let our prodigal young people know that we are hoping for their return and that they will always be welcome home – with open arms. 

Third, notice that the Parent welcomes and embraces the Prodigal before their apology (“I’m not worthy, etc.”). What a risk of unconditional love. So, instead of “come home under the following conditions,” can we offer an unqualified welcome? What does this ask of the Church? Of parents?

Fourth, even if prodigals don’t return to our particular home within God’s family, remember, as Jesus himself said, “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2).  So, we can be hopeful that they will make their way home to God by some other path than ours, and that those good values we instilled in them – prompted by our faith – will sustain their journey, whatever road they take.

Reflect and Decide

  • Think of a young person you know who is without a faith home at this time…
  • How might you invite them to consider a home-coming (perhaps for Easter)?

With the Craft of Ambassadors

The second reading has Paul’s great statement that God has reconciled the world to Godself through Jesus Christ “and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” This surely entails reconciling alienated young people with their faith community. While this can be a challenging task, Paul lends a helpful hint of how to go about it when he says “you are ambassadors for Christ.” Recall that ambassadors are experts in the art of diplomacy. So condemning or haranguing surely won’t help, but a compassionate hospitality more likely will. Let us invite home – gently.

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