This painting by Carl Johann Nepomuk Hemerlein (1807-84) depicts the return of the prodigal son. Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

The Prodigal Confessor

By recognizing the need for God’s mercy, priests become more effective spiritual fathers

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Sitting in the rectangular, wooden box of the confessional shaped and fashioned like an upright coffin, I was tempted to meditate on the dictum, “Keep death ever before you.” However, as it was the Year of Mercy, I began to pray about keeping mercy ever before me as I waited for the next fellow sinner to quietly confess. Thus, while the fan above my shoulder whirred and an occasional cough from the pews echoed, I pulled out the Bible I keep and prayed with that paradigm of mercy, the parable of the prodigal son (see Lk 15:11-32).

Any priest has read, reflected and preached upon this parable with more frequency than our annual second collections. But as I prayerfully pondered while breathing the scent of candles and squirming a bit on the hard seat, a question popped up like one of those little clues in detective stories. Just one tiny oddity, yet something so out of the ordinary that, like an intuitive detective, I had to investigate. The odd question was this: When the prodigal returned, how did his father identify him from far away (see v. 20)?

Relating to the Son

Remember that the last time the prodigal’s father had seen his youngest son, the boy was well-fed, well-shod, well-dressed and marching away with the commanding stride of one born to privilege. So how could his father possibly identify him months (years?) later from that starving, stumbling, mumbling remnant of a boy unshod, unfed, unkempt and seen only from a distance? In an age before telescopes or even eyeglasses, how did the father identify that eccentric scarecrow as his familiar son even “from a long way off”?

This odd question led to an odd answer. Perhaps the father could identify his son even from a distance because he had first identified with his son through his own distant past. Might the father himself once have been unshod in sin, unfed by grace, unkempt in virtue and had stumbled back home in mumbling desperation? Now, I realize this is a novel idea, but it is an explanation for this oddity. And reminded of Sherlock Holmes’ famous precept, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” I continued prayerfully to ponder the evidence.

Like his children, we only know the father as a grown man. But every man was once a boy — a son, a prodigal. Could it not be that seeing his son made this father recall his own prodigal past, and not only remember but relive the relief only mercy can give? It may be improbable yet true that even from a distance the father could identify his son because he had first identified with his son.

Embracing the Penitent

Without claiming any divine infusion of knowledge or even hard-earned exegetical skill, I simply sat with this little insight into a tiny question asked of a prodigious parable. And then my meditation was interrupted as the confessional drape was drawn aside, someone sighed as she knelt in the dark, and the little slot between us opened with the words, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”

The confessional feels like a coffin, but it is really the doorway to the Resurrection. Sin that leads to death is vanquished, and the life-giving grace of absolution propels the penitent forth like the glory of the Resurrection propelled the sinful apostles from tomb to testimony. I gave joyful thanks for this ministry, as I often do, and again felt overwhelmed by what God accomplishes through such a curmudgeon as myself. Although my low frailty only serves to heighten God’s divinity (God must be great if he acts through such littleness), I also began again to pray that I would be as worthy a confessor as humanly possible.

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‘Arms Wide Open’

Pope Francis in April 2018 met with the missionaries of mercy, who traveled under the pope’s orders during the Year of Mercy. During the audience, he referenced the story of the prodigal son, saying: “Recognizing a sinner’s repentance is tantamount to welcoming him or her with arms wide open, after the example of the father in the parable who welcomes his son when he returns home; it means not even letting him finish speaking. This has always struck me: The father did not need to hear his son’s excuses; he embraced him. The son had a speech at the ready, but [the father] embraced him. It means the father did not need to hear the apology the son had prepared, because the confessor already understood everything, strong from his own experience of being a sinner. There is no need to shame someone who has already recognized his sin and knows he has done wrong.”

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If grace builds on nature, I do not want my nature to take this ministry so much for granted that I become indolent or, worse, obstructive — familiarity breeding torment. Perhaps a heart surgeon feels the same as he opens the chest of his thousandth patient. But every patient, like every penitent, deserves to be treated as well as the first. Hence, as a pause between penitents began again, I turned back to prayer and to the prodigal, to the tiny question and its possible answer.

If it’s possible that even from a distance the father could identify his prodigal son because he had first identified with his son, perhaps cultivating mercy is how a confessor becomes quick to identify with his spiritual children. Because being quick to identify and embrace the prodigal son is also the grace of spiritual fatherhood, we might do well also to relive with the relief only mercy can give our own prodigal past. Therefore reliving the mercy God has granted us sinful priests might be a helpful preparation for confession.

Perhaps then it would be more likely we would identify with the sinner who stumbles into the confessional if we recall stumbling through our own convoluted conversion. Thus when a penitent says, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” we would hear the echo of our own cry for mercy: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son” (Lk 15:21). And as the prodigal’s father did not suggest, but ordered the servant to quickly welcome his son, so, too, with authority we would rush to relieve hateful sin and restore our beloved son. Because even from a distance a father identifies his son when he first identifies with his son.

Preparing for the Confessional

Now, identifying with a penitent may sound like countertransference, but in the confines of (especially an anonymous) confessional, perhaps this is less likely, especially when the relationship is sporadic rather than continuous. And, of course, any metaphor is limited. We are spiritual rather than biological fathers. Further, there is a role for justice as well as mercy. A father may be merciful without sacrificing justice. Thus the prodigal father assures his eldest, “Everything I have is yours.” In other words, he will not divide the estate again.

The Prodigal Son
“I am the prodigal son every time I search for
unconditional love where it cannot be found.”
— Henri Nouwen, “Return of the Prodigal Son”

There are consequences to the prodigal and the penitent’s behavior. However, the prodigal lost only his inheritance, not his heritage. He is still a beloved member of the family. That is why the father corrects his eldest who complains about “your son” by asserting, “this brother of yours” (vv. 30-32). A confessor can justly condemn sin, properly insist on amends, but always also assure the penitent that any sin is only finite, while God’s mercy is forever infinite. If blood is thicker than water, then certainly the Precious Blood shed for sinners is more profuse than any penitent’s tears.

Nonetheless, it may be a fruitful preparation for the Sacrament of Reconciliation for a priest to rejoice in his own grateful experience of mercy. A priest may best mercifully identify with the penitent present if we do not deny our own prodigal past. Moreover, as King David (and who knew more about mercy than he?) prayed, “Even this is too little” (2 Sm 7:19).

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is an encounter between a sinner and the Savior, but it is mediated by the Church and witnessed by humans (priest and penitent). And as in the parable, both (spiritual) father and penitent son rejoice in God’s infinite goodness together because they are two brothers under the same Father.
 

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When we prepare for the confessional by reliving God’s mercy to us, and when through that preparation God magnifies the sympathetic (although always also sacramental) encounter between a priest’s past and the penitent’s present, God blesses both with an even better mutual future. God multiplies the grace of confession, like the gift of mercy, into a double blessing. It blesses both the one who gives and the one who receives. The priest blesses the penitent with absolution, but the penitent first blesses the priest with trust. Absolution relieves the sin to restore the son, but God may also use the encounter to reassure us that we are celibate, but not sterile: We have a son.

And the consequence of fruitful celibacy was the final answer to me of an odd question, because as I read the parable again, I noticed that whether indulging iniquity or pleading pity, the prodigal always begins his request with the same word: “Father.” The final answer or application of the answer was this: Whenever I look into the eyes of a sinner and can imagine a trusting son, I know that I’ve become the father I’ve always wanted. Confession from the penitent and absolution from the priest is not enough; as in the parable, so, too, in the confessional, God wants more: Both image of son and likeness of father restored.

FATHER KENNETH G. DAVIS, OFM Conv., is a visiting professor of spirituality and spiritual director. He has published widely on issues of prayer and priesthood.

 
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