In one of his short stories, Earnest Hemmingway recounts a popular old Spanish tale of a father and son who are estranged over a hurtful disagreement. The father desires to be reunited with his son Paco, so he takes out an add in a local newspaper with the simple message: Paco, all is forgiven, Papa – with instructions for a meeting time the next day in the local square. The father is overwhelmed the next day to find a horde of young boys named Paco in that square looking for the forgiveness of their fathers. This poignant story speaks to the hurt of the world, but more amazingly to the power of forgiveness. We all are hurt, and we all long to be forgiven. The challenge is simple, will we go to the square?
This Sunday’s Gospel story of the prodigal son is no doubt at the heart of that Spanish tale. Jesus, knowing human nature as he does, taps into our deepest yearnings as he tells the tale of this younger son. Who of us cannot resonate with our own foolishness in not appreciating what we have been given, of hurting the ones we love, of squandering the good life that is ours, and then, in the midst of our own squalor, recognizing the truth of our own condition and the glory of the life to which we have been called. The challenge it seems is to swallow our pride. To truly be able to see a way out beyond our fear is to first admit that where we are, is not where we are called to be. And sadly, it is our own fault.
But to have any hope of truly returning to a place where we can once again enjoy the fullness of life, we must first experience the forgiveness for which we long. It is amazing to me to see the numerous examples of yearning for forgiveness that get played out so often in our public squares. In today’s version of the story, we make our public confession on social media or in more prominent cases, look to a news reporter to air our need for public forgiveness. Oprah, 60 Minutes and ESPN’S 30 for 30 are the public confessionals for everyone from wife beating mega athletes to El Chapo. And like the many Pacos in the Hemmingway account, who was there for them to give absolution?
As Catholics, we are blessed with the great sacramental gifts, each designed with the human condition in mind. God sits waiting, looking for us to simply start on our way back. And with our steps toward him, the Father of Mercy runs out to meet us to cloak us in his compassionate love: All is forgiven. And yet, most Catholics have not been the beneficiaries in years of the very sacrament that celebrates and makes real that mercy of reconciliation. Like Pacos in the square, we long to be forgiven and fail to get the right direction for true mercy.
I could tell you about the sacrament of reconciliation, I could explain how it works, what you need to do, how powerful a moment of grace it has been for me as someone receiving the sacrament and as a confessor. But we all know what is really holding most people back: simple pride and fear. It all boils down to that. Christ invites you beyond your pride and fear, to the Church square – to the confessional, where he has sent his priests to be his face of caring, his eyes of compassion, his ears of understanding, and his voice, that in the act of absolution, speak the words that you and I long to hear: All is forgiven, Papa!
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