Fourth Week of Lent

Prodigal Son Reflection

When I first started teaching in 1955, our pastor was a bit of tyrant and he demanded that every student in the school of about 800 students, learn the three laws of memory and be ready to recite them when he asked…this was kindergarten to 8th grade. In case you have forgotten them, they are “vivid impression”, due association, and frequent repetition. I reflected on the last one as I prepared this homily for today.

For the third time,( that would be repetition,) in the last few years, I have been honored to share thoughts on the gospel of The Prodigal Son. It is an old story and one that I have heard sermons about every year for as many years as I have been alive. The presiding priest who delivered the homily always asked us to stand in the role of the Prodigal. That was easy for me as I had one very gentle, soft-spoken, rule obeying sister like the faithful son, so you know what category I fit in.

Prior to Mass today I handed out a copy of the traditional Rembrandt painting of The Prodigal in Russia. And a few years ago Ed Wojiciski (who may be on our Zoom) introduced me to Henri Nouwen’s famed book The Return of the Prodigal Son. A little bit about Henri …. He was a Catholic priest who taught at both Harvard and Yale and even spent some time in South America as a missionary. Henri was a restless soul and after many years of teaching and preaching, he took a residency at the L’Arche community in Toronto where he resided in a home for handicapped and mentally disabled men. While there, besides writing he was assigned to a resident who was paralyzed and lay on a gurney face down even while being bathed and was fed his meals in that prone position.( Perhaps that mirrors a bit our own Diane’s work with the handicapped in Chatham.) However, it was really Henri’s vacation trip to Russia and his contemplation of the Rembrandt painting that completely changed his life causing him to write The Return of the Prodigal Son and his dedication to handicapped men became his life vocation until his death.

NOW I DIGRESS: (Please stay with me because it fits with the story)

On one vacation Henri visited his father in the Netherlands and, while there, became acquainted with a family called the Rodleighs who owned a circus. After many encounters Henri became fascinated with them so muchso that he rented a small camper and followed them for a few weeks through small towns in Germany. Most intriguing to him were the aerialists and he spent much time with them and their performances. In fact, he took prolific notes about them with the intent of writing a spiritual book when he returned to Canada Now, I’ve only been to a circus once or twice in my life and, besides the clowns and elephants parading around, I, too, along with the whole audience, focused on the aerialists. Most people watch the man on the top platform who is ready to make a breath-taking leap. However, Henri quickly learned from the circus troupe that the hardest, trickiest job was that of the Catcher. He had to have unfailing accuracy or the jumper could be hurt or fail to complete his act and fall into the net.

NOW, back to the Prodigal Son. Most of us at one time or another have assumed our role as one of the sons. The arrogant older son was pretty angry and self-righteous when his father embraced his “playboy” younger brother. Henri, in his book about the Prodigal, however, and having spent two full days studying Rembrandt’s painting maintains that, like the aerialists in the circus, and the father in the painting, we are all called to be the CATCHER. The parallel is obvious in Christ’s life with the poor, the sick, the rejected, and the outcast. Think about how many times you have been the catcher for someone in your family or friends.

And, in addition to our vocation as a catcher, Rembrandt was so all-inclusive that when painting this famed portrait, he deliberately made the hands of the father both male and female. Look at the painting carefully and realize we are all called to be the father or the catcher of the sick, the poor, the disenfranchised, or the homeless all around us. So, try to abandon the idea of fitting in with one of the sons. Think about the times in your life when you have assumed the role of catcher.

This is a short P.S.
My friend Ed who may be on the zoom call, procured for me the notes that Henri Nouwen had in his possession with the intent of writing a spiritual book about us all called to be the catcher. Unfortunately, Henri’s untimely death left that unfulfilled. But, seriously, when you hear this gospel every year think of the times in your life when you have been the catcher of a family member, a friend, a stranger….or you should have been and dodged your calling.

And another P.S.
A few years back, when Cardinal Bernardin knew he had terminal cancer, and held his final news conference in Chicago he was holding The Prodigal Son book.

And a more recent note…Ukraine also had captured the heart of Henri Nouwen as well as his brother. In this photo in 2021, Bishop Gudziak of the Ukraine is seen presenting a copy of the Prodigal Son to President Zelensky. He has a daunting “Catching” job. Think about yours.

Homily shared on Saturday, 26 March 2022, by Barbara Fuhrwerk.