Our young are leaving the church. They are not the only ones. This has been a clear trend for many years. This week, Singapore took a firm step, hopefully, into the post pandemic era. The archdiocese calls for us to “Come back to Me”, to return physically to the Sacraments. Will everyone return? Unlikely. There may not be enough motivation to remain in or to come back to church.
Today’s Gospel is on the parable of the prodigal son, leaving and then returning to his father. This is a passage rich in meaning, allowing us many points to reflect and act on, in relation to our loved ones, or even ourselves, leaving or having been away from church. It importantly tells us that leaving and returning is part of our faith life. We are never outside it. Because God is always with us. There are points in this passage that will enlighten us: the son leaving, when “he came to his senses”, the father in active wait then running towards his son, the embrace and the dismissal of the son’s prepared confession, and the attitude of the elder son.
The son chooses to leave, and the father did not exercise his authority to say no. He allowed his son the freedom to go. If he did not, he knows it will only serve to distance their relationship. Sure, they had a conversation. Did the son leave because he hated his father? No. He left to pursue his dreams looking for greater fulfilment outside his father’s house. If our children choose to leave church, we can remember this parable. Can we stop them? It is not because they lost belief in God, but there is a disconnect where practices of faith have lost its relevance in their daily life.
The parable tells us that the love of our heavenly Father is so generous that He gives us complete freedom to choose. Our Father does not interrupt or refuse our choice even if it meant leaving His church. Despite that our Father will not cut us off, His love is ever faithful. Instead, He sends Christ to silently accompany us in every consequence of that choice, looking for opportunities to amplify His call to “Come back to Me”. Like the father in the parable, God our Father is in active wait, constantly searching the horizon for us, always ready to welcome us back.
When we heed the archdiocese call to return physically into the pews, we will be looking up to see who is missing. But instead look out for the new faces and extend a Christ welcome to them. They are people who may have been away for years or even decades. Perhaps during the pandemic, they found themselves in a difficult situation like the son in the parable “He came to his senses” and realised that fulfilment cannot be found in worldly things. Life has come a full cycle for them. In the parable, the father embraced his returning son, allowing him the transforming experience of love and mercy. Who will embrace them for the church if we won’t?
For these “new faces” returning to Sunday Mass is not the end point of their journey but the arrival for an encounter. We are called to be Ambassadors for Christ (Second Reading) and our responsibility is to provide for this lived experience of heaven’s rejoice at the one who was once lost but is found. We are ambassadors because through us, in our actions, Christ is felt, and reconciliation becomes a life-changing encounter and the practice of faith become relevant again.
There will come a day when these “new faces” are the faces of our own children. If our family and home have always been rich in faith, then when our children leave, they will with their rich share of this inheritance. And by the grace of God, they will one day respond to the call to “Come back to Me”. Hence, we must embrace our responsibilities as ambassadors for Christ because it is through us, and not the institution, that doors of love and mercy remain open for our own in the future. This is a ministry built today for tomorrow.
We would want our children to always seek for what is best in life, but that search may take them outside the ‘church’ we know. Trying to keep them in may be keeping them out. To borrow a phrase from Fr Timothy Radcliffe whose books inspired a lot of my thoughts today, describing the two sons, he said “one is lost outside, and one is lost inside”.
Motivation in life is rooted in the fulfilment we will discover as ambassadors for Christ. It may take a journey outside to discover what is really inside.
“It was God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the work of handing on this reconciliation. In other words, God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not holding men’s faults against them, and he has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled. So, we are ambassadors for Christ.”
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4th Sunday in Lent