The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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March 23, 2001 Issue

Prodigal Son shows our options

We can all identify with characters in the parable, but is it the right one?

By Vicky Gossens

Summoned to Serve
Answering summons
Summoned to Serve is the diocesan theme for 2000-2002. The theme is an outgrowth of Renew 2000 and the Jubilee Year. It invites Catholics to put their faith and spirituality into action by serving others through charity and justice. This series will look at ways to do that.

How many times we have listened to this powerful reading about the Prodigal Son? Have we really heard it? Most of us can identify with the different characters in this story at various times in our lives.

When have we been the Prodigal, deciding to leave home to experience the world, believing that we could handle anything, only to realize later that some of the choices we made were not in our best interest?

When have we been the Father, loving someone so unconditionally that we can reach out to that person although we don't agree with their choices? How many times as parents have we said, "They're just going to have to learn the hard way"?

We wish we could prevent our children from making mistakes, especially those that we ourselves have made. Typically, our children don't want or listen to our advice, so we watch, pray and are there when they fall (and hopefully learn). What a wonderful example God, our father, is for us in the role of parent, unconditionally loving us when we learn the hard way.

Identifying with Brother

The role I think most of us can easily identify with is the Brother as he struggles with his father's loving welcome toward the Prodigal. Haven't we all followed the rules when others have not, and felt resentment when they seemed to get away with it?

We often want to punish these people or seek revenge on them. We live in a culture that focuses more on punishment for breaking rules than on reward for positive behavior. Just look at the daily news.

We can feel ambivalent about some of the decisions others make. I often see this conflict between forgiveness/compassion and punishment in my work with Project Rachel, our Diocese's program for post-abortion healing.

As we know, our church opposes abortion. I meet with people who have had an abortion, as well as others who have been indirectly affected, who believe that because they knowingly broke this rule they should be punished and are undeserving of peace or healing.

Facing complex issues

We often lose sight of the fact that as humans, we sometimes face complex issues (like an unwanted pregnancy) and difficult decisions that have no easy answers. We all make decisions that can cause pain, sadness, fear, guilt and regret, as well as alienation in our relationships with God and others.

Sometimes, it is only later - when we have more maturity and life experience - that we realize the choice we made was not the best one, and we have to figure out how to live with the consequences of our decisions.

We can choose how we cope with these consequences. Do we admit our mistakes and seek forgiveness from God, ourselves and others? Or, do we pretend it never happened? Both are difficult to do.

Like the loving Father in this parable, God and the church have given us rules to live by. These rules are not meant to restrict or oppress, but rather to promote life and love. The New Testament promises that if - when we break these rules (as we all do) - we come to God and sincerely ask forgiveness, he will welcome us with unconditional love.

Jesus shows compassion

He defended the adulterer from the stone throwers and said Go, and sin no more. He met people at their own emotional and spiritual levels and encouraged them to learn and grow from past behaviors. Over and over we see how Jesus' compassion and forgiveness transformed those who had broken the rules.

Compassion and the ability to forgive were Jesus' most outstanding qualities, yet they are the most difficult for us to consistently demonstrate toward ourselves and others.

Are we going to follow Jesus' example of using unconditional love and compassion as tools for personal and social transformation to promote life and love, or are we going to use punishment that restricts and oppresses us and prevents us from fully living as God intended us to do?

(Gossens is a counselor with Catholic Social Services, Fox Cities, and is diocesan director of Project Rachel.)

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