In a general audience on February 19, Pope Francis made a plea not too long ago for Catholics to return in greater numbers to the sacrament of confession.
“Do not be afraid of Confession! When one is in line to go to Confession, one feels all these things, even shame, but then when one finishes Confession one leaves free, grand, beautiful, forgiven, candid, happy. This is the beauty of Confession! I would like to ask you — but don’t say it aloud, everyone respond in his heart: when was the last time you made your confession? Everyone think about it … Two days, two weeks, two years, twenty years, forty years? Everyone count, everyone say ‘when was the last time I went to confession?’. And if much time has passed, do not lose another day. Go, the priest will be good. Jesus is there, and Jesus is more benevolent than priests, Jesus receives you, he receives you with so much love. Be courageous and go to Confession!”
It is never easy to admit we have done wrong to another. It can seem almost impossible if we have not been to confession in a long time. It is for this reason that it is important for those of us who are priests to emphasize how much the sacrament is about God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness and God’s love. As a priest and a confessor, I have one very important thing on my mind in hearing confessions: How can I be a vehicle that leads the penitent closer to Jesus?
Today’s readings emphasize the primacy of God’s forgiveness and mercy. God is like the father, going to the brow of the hill each day waiting for us to return. Eager, loving, ready to bestow unbelievable forgiveness upon us. We know the story as the Prodigal Son. That is because the word prodigal can mean wasteful and excessive spending. But is can also simply mean lavishly abundant. In this sense, the mercy of the father in the story can be about lavish abundance. So, while the son is wasteful, the father is lavish in giving an abundance of mercy.
What is interesting about today’s gospel is that both sons need to learn to accept their father on his own terms. The older son has been faithful, hardworking and obedient. He is angry at his father kindness and mercy. The younger son has felt privileged and entitled. He essentially says to his father in asking for his inheritance, “I want you dead.”
To be sure, we too can feel that God’s abundant mercy can seem unfair. But in the end, we seek a deeper relationship with God by accepting God on his own terms.