Saturday, March 9, 2013

The interior journey of the elder son

Homily
4th Sunday of Lent Year A
Laetare Sunday
10 March 2013
Holy Spirit Catholic Parish (Overland Park) and St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas

Daily Readings

Living at KU, I perhaps get to hang onto the college experience more than others.  I can walk to Allen Fieldhouse in five minutes, to Memorial Stadium in 10, and on Jayhawk Boulevard in 3.  Many adults who are stuck in 'real life' ask me jealousy how things are at KU, like I'm living the dream.  Maybe I am.

As vocation director with responsibilities throughput the Archdiocese, I'm attached somewhat nominally to the day to day life of students at KU.  Yet I get enough interaction for the parable of the prodigal son to come alive.  It's hard to come up with a closer modern parallel to the ancient story of the prodigal son, than the ritual of a college freshman taking off with his parent's money to his new-found freedom at the college of his choice.  It's one thing for a junior high student to confess disobedience to his parents.  The transition of a young person away from his parents to college is infinitely more dramatic.

It is at college that I came to my senses, and realized the richness of my faith and the depth of my relationship with God.  That came through my involvement at the St. Lawrence Catholic Center, and the Center is there for students today with all the resources they need to encounter God in the new and different circumstances in which they find themselves.  By exploring new relationships and ideas at KU, and by making the normal mistakes born of selfishness, immaturity and inexperience, and comparing this new data with what I was learning at St. Lawrence, I eventually concluded that there is nothing more important or greater than being Catholic.  The Catholic Church had a greater purchase on reality than any other knowledge I encountered at the University.  What is more, the Catholic Church gave me the greatest sense of family, even more than my fraternity.  For the relationships I formed at St. Lawrence were anchored in the relationships I had with God - with a Father who gave me a dignity and destiny I could find nowhere else, with Jesus who as my Savior loved me at my weakest and most sinful point, where I could not love or change myself, and with the Holy Spirit, who believed in me and sent me out not to pursue my own selfish happiness, but showed me the meaning of life through the revelation of my mission and vocation.

Yet as you all know very well, this is not the experience of the majority of  Catholic students at KU.  St. Lawrence is a great place, but we can't reach everyone.  The story of the prodigal son is played out in different ways in the lives of KU students who arrive at KU without a spiritual game plan.  Too often, lots of money is spent by students and their parents for an education and experience that eats away at the foundation in faith, morals and relationships that has been painstakingly nurtured for 18 years.  It can be painful to watch so much thrown away so fast.

The fastest growing part of the religious landscape for today's college generation is agnosticism and atheism, so especially on liberal campuses, students are always being encouraged through the air they breathe to find their uniqueness as individuals apart from their relationships with family or Church.  The tragedy of this is that just the opposite is true.  We only find ourselves, and our own uniqueness, in and through our relationships with those that love us the most.  The story of the prodigal son makes this truth so palpable to us.  Yet the wisdom of the parable is not necessarily the wisdom of the secular humanism that can dominate the thinking at universities.  And just because the situation of the prodigal son turns out well in this particular parable does not make the prodigal son a hero.  The reality is that only a small percentage of those who go away from their relationship with God ever get it back.  If you walk on the cliff long enough, you'll probably fall off.  Don't get the idea from the parable that it's a good idea to send your kids to far-off places with lots of money with no other direction than 'have fun!'  There are plenty of parables where the kids are lost forever.  Turn on the news if you don't believe me.

So the story of the prodigal son is not a recipe, mind you, for how to send your kids off to college - with as much freedom and money as possible.  Please don't take the story that way.  The story is absurd and extreme to show us how incomparably beautiful and deep is God's love for us, and that we are fools to seek any identity for ourselves apart from that love.  Still, as far as the prodigal son went away from his father exteriorly, so far as to long to eat corn husks, we see even more dramatically in the parable that the older son went even farther from his father interiorly.  At least the younger Son remembered his Father's love.  The older son had forgotten it completely, while being next to his Father the whole time.  His life was a pitiful, slavish obedience to a rule.  His life was devoid of the vocation of man that brings meaning to life - to love with all one's heart, and all one's soul, and with all one's mind.  The resulting lesson is even more dramatic than that learned through the mistakes of the younger son.  The older son shows that it is better to have tried and lost, than never to have tried.  As bad as the prodigal son got, there is nothing worse than the situation of the older son, who simple settled for a vocation less than what he was made for.  For without love, man is nothing.  He is nothing at all.

It is a privilege for me to work as vocation director with the young men of our Archdiocese, who lie on this continuum between these two sons, between losing their vocation because they instead believe the lies about happiness that the world is telling them like the prodigal son, and between their being too scared to believe in themselves and to radically pursue God's plan for them like the older son.  All men of the Archdiocese fall somewhere in between.  It's a joy to work with all of them.  It's easy, for sure, to look at an aging priesthood that has been damaged by scandal, to listen to media report after media report saying the solution is married priests or so on or so forth, and to be discouraged.  It's not always easy to look at a narcissistic and secular culture, where Catholicism is challenged at every turn, and where men are struggling to grow up and find strong examples of fatherhood to inspire them, and think things will be okay.  But to tell the story from the inside out, I can tell you that a renewal of the priesthood is coming, and it's coming in a powerful way, and that these challenges are forging better men, including the two men Thomas Maddock and Evan Tinker, from this parish, to be your priests of the future.  The real story is that our local Church is producing more and better vocations, though you may not see it or feel it everyday, it's true and it's the real story that needs to be told.  It is a story that like the story of the prodigal son, will take time to play out, but will have a beautiful ending.  The story of the prodigal son should tell us that the Father's love for us, his children, and his Church, will never fail.  We are on the winning side.  Thank you for your support in helping me call forth the future priests of our Church.


2 comments:

Mal said...

Father Mitchel,
I really enjoy reading your sermons from this blog site. I have three younger brothers and two of them remind me of this story.

Malleson Van Wyngarden

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