Homily at the Mass for Detainees at the Penal Institute for Minors
Casal del Marmo, Rome
March 18, 2007
Nevertheless, the younger son gradually finds this life boring and unsatisfactory. This can't be all there is to life, he tells himself: getting up every day, maybe at 6 a.m., and then following the Jewish tradition, a prayer and a reading of the Holy Bible, and then, to work, and at the end of the day, another prayer. And so, day after day, he thinks, "But there has to be more in life, I should go out and find some other life where I can be really free, where I can do whatever I please -- a life that will be free of this discipline, these standards set by the commandments of God, or by my father's orders. I'd like to be by myself, for a change, and have a life that is totally just for me, with all its pleasures. Because now, all I have is work."
And so he decides to get all the patrimony due him and to leave home. The father is very respectful and generous, and respects his son's freedom -- he lets him find for himself his own plan for life.
So the son goes, according to the Gospel, to a faraway place. Geographically far, probably, because he wants a change, but also internally, because he wants a completely different life. His idea of that life is freedom -- doing whatever he wishes, not to have to live by the standards of a remote God, to do everything that seems beautiful to him, what pleases him, to enjoy life in all its richness and fullness.
In fact, for a time -- possibly for several months -- everything seemed to go his way. He was happy he was finally able to “live,” he felt happy. And then gradually, he started to feel bored. It was the same thing all over, which in the end remains a void that is ever more disquieting. He feels increasingly that this still is not “the life,” that even going forward with all these new things, life seemed even farther away.
Everything becomes empty, and even now, he feels once again the slavery of routine. And ultimately, his money is gone, and he finds out that he has been reduced to a state of life even worse than pigs in their sty. So he starts to reflect, asking himself whether the way to living fully was through freedom, in the sense of doing whatever I want, to live just for myself. Or was it better to live for others, contribute to building a better world, to the growth of the human community.
So he embarks on a new road, an internal journey. The young man reflects and considers all these new aspects of the problem and begins to see that he was much more free at home -- as a proprietor himself, he could contribute to the well-being of his own family and of society, in communion with the Creator. He begins to recognize the purpose of his life, seeing the plan that God has for him.
In this interior journey, in the maturation of a new plan for life, the young man then sets out on the exterior journey, to go back home, to start his life anew. Because now he understands that he took the wrong track. I must start anew with a completely different idea, he tells himself.
And he arrives at the house of his father, who had given him the freedom to go, to give him the possibility of learning what it means to live and how not to live. The father, with all his love, embraces him, offers him a feast, and life can start again with this feast.
The son now understands that it is work, humility, the discipline of every day, that create true feasting and true freedom. And so he has come back home, matured and purified within. He has learned what it means to live. Certainly, his life was not always going to be easy, the temptations would return, but at least, he is now aware that a life without God does not work -- it lacks essence, it lacks light, it lacks the why, the great sense of human existence. He has understood that we can only understand God on the basis of His own words. We Christians may add that we know God in Jesus, who has shown us the face of God.
The young man understands now that the commandments of God are not an obstacle to freedom and the good life, but they are pointers for the road one must take in order to find true life. He understands that even work, discipline, commitment to others instead of only to oneself, broadens our life. Because this very commitment to work, to do what we have to do, gives depth to our life -- it makes us feel ultimately the satisfaction of having helped to make this world better, more free and more beautiful.
I will not now talk about the other son who remained at home, but in his envious reaction, we see that perhaps interiorly, he too had felt it might have been better to leave home and take all the liberties he wants to. But he, too, in his interior homecoming -- he had been out in the fields working -- would have understood that one can truly live only with God, with His Word, in communion with one's own family, in communion with others, in the great Family of God. . . .
The Gospel helps us to understand who God truly is: He is the merciful Father who, in Jesus, loves us beyond all measure. The errors we make, no matter how big, do not erode the faithfulness of His love. In the sacrament of confession, we can always start life anew -- He welcomes us always, He restores dignity to his children. So let us rediscover this sacrament of forgiveness which makes joy gush forth from a heart that is reborn into the true life.
This parable also makes us understand what man is: he is not a “monad,” an isolated entity that lives for himself alone and could have a life all by himself and all to himself. On the contrary, we live with others, we were created together with all others, and only in being with others, in giving ourselves to each other, can we find true life.
Man is a creature on which God has stamped His own image, a creature who is drawn into the horizon of His grace. But even if he is also a fragile creature, exposed to evil, he is still capable of doing good.
Finally, man is a free being. But we have to understand what is freedom, and what is simply the appearance of freedom. We could say that freedom is like a trampoline to launch us towards the infinite sea of divine goodness. But it can also be a slippery slope down which we can easily plunge toward the abyss of sin and evil, and thus lose both our freedom and our dignity.
[During Lent], the Church helps us to make our interior journeys and invites us to repentance which, before it is seen as an effort that is always important in order to change our behavior, should be considered an opportunity to decide to get up and begin anew, abandoning sin and choosing to return to God. . . . Every time, like today, that we participate in the Eucharist -- source and school of love -- we become capable of living this love, of announcing it and of being witness to it in our own life. But we must decide to go towards Christ, just as the prodigal son went back, interiorly and exteriorly, to his father. At the same time, we must avoid the selfish attitude of the older son, so sure of himself, so ready to condemn others, and who closes his heart to understanding, welcoming and forgiving his younger brother, forgetting that he too is in need of pardon.