Each year, I’m privileged to visit the Holy Land to promote the nearly 800-year-old mission of the Franciscans there. With each visit, I discover something new. God is always at work, opening up new insights for any pilgrim who visits this ancient land.
This past spring, I spent nearly a week with the friars who live at and minister in the great Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. During my stay, I explored this modern church—consecrated in 1969—each day with my camera, photographing the contemporary artwork and striking architecture which helps the visitor come closer to the mystery of the Incarnation.
The Basilica of the Annunciation is divided into an upper and lower church. The lower church contains the inscription under the altar, “Here, the Word was made flesh,” on the spot which recalls the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary. The upper church contains soaring concrete arches and contemporary artwork. Somehow, in my two previous visits, I failed to register four large inlaid marble pictures over the confessionals. They were created by an Italian artist named Alessandrini, and depict Gospel passages relating to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
I thought of "The Prodigal Son”—someone once said that the parable ought to be called “The Father who Couldn’t Forget.” The story actually depicts two sons with whom the father must deal: the younger, “prodigal,” who squanders his inheritance; and the old, loyal son who will not join the celebration at his brother’s return.
As I took a closer look at these four panels, I began to think about what Pope Francis has written and preached during this year—particularly about our practice of confession, and its part in the larger understanding of mercy. I’d like to share some insights which I took home from this most recent visit to the Holy Land.
Luke places this parable third in a series of three examples which describe the joy felt by someone who finds what is lost. Pope Francis, in his decree proclaiming the Year of Mercy, says these parables reveal “the nature of God as that of a Father who never gives up until he has forgiven the wrong and overcome rejection with compassion and mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus [MV], 9).
In these parables, the Holy Father writes, “mercy is presented as a force that overcomes everything, filling the heart with love and bringing consolation through pardon (MV 9).
I like that definition of mercy—a force that overcomes everything! And, as I reflect again on that image of the “Father who Couldn’t Forget” over the confessional in the church at Nazareth, I recall that Pope Francis has emphasized that this quality is important for confessors. They are, he writes, to be “authentic signs of the Father’s mercy....“Confessors are called to embrace the repentant son who comes back home and to express the joy of having him back again” (MV 17).
And, we’re not to forget the older son, lurking in the background: “Let us never tire of also going out to the other son who stands outside, incapable of rejoicing, in order to explain to him that his judgement is severe and unjust and meaningless in light of the father’s boundless mercy” (MV 17).
As a confessor, I must remember that God already has been at work when people approach for confession. In his book, The Name of God is Mercy, the Holy Father writes: “The very fact that someone goes to the confession indicates an initiation of repentance, even if it is not conscious. Without that initial impulse, the person would not be there. His being there is testimony to the desire for change” (The Name of God is Mercy, Random House, 2016).
I need to respect that wonderful graced action! Pope Francis puts it dramatically when he says that the priest should “not ask useless questions, but like the father in the parable, interrupt the speech prepared ahead of time by the prodigal son, so that confessors will learn to accept the plea for help and mercy pouring from the heart of every penitent.”
Truly, the Church’s ministry in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a powerful moment when we witness mercy—“the force that overcomes everything”—at work!