As the deacon began to read the unforgettable story you’ve just heard I bet you were probably saying it’s the prodigal son. And of course that is the name it has been traditionally been accorded – the prodigal son. But the name is problematic on a couple of counts. Last night in a parish I somewhat mischievously asked the servers what the word ‘prodigal’ meant, and they looked totally bemused and thought I was talking Russian. Is it the parable of the prodigal son? You’ve heard the question before. Or another name, which it has had through the ages, has been as the parable of lost son. As the father says “he was lost and is now found”. In many ways of course it’s neither the younger boy nor the older boy who is the true focus of the parable. It is of course the father and in that sense it is the parable of prodigal father – extravagant; almost absurd; absurdly wasteful in the welcome that he offers to the wayward son once he returns.
The fact is that the two brothers are locked in a world of utter convention and predictability. There is nothing even remotely surprising about anything they do or say. The younger boy takes the money and runs. He’s looking for the right thing in the wrong place; looking for freedom and he ends up a slave in a pigsty. The cast iron logic of sin – look for the right thing in the wrong place and you will find its exact opposite. Then he comes to his senses, or in one sense we’re told, he says ‘this is ridiculous’. “Here am I the son, I can’t even feed on pigswill. And even the slaves, the servants back home have more than enough to eat. I’m going to go back home.” But who’s he worried about? Himself. And he scripts the speech perfectly, word by word and I bet you’ve done it too. He gets it word perfect. “Father I’ve sinned against heaven and against you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your paid servants and I’ll earn your love.”
So off he goes, again locked in a world of utter convention and predictability. He arrives home. The father then runs to meet him. This is not convention. There’s nothing predictable about this. This is almost absurd in its extravagance. If the father were to be locked as his sons are, in a world of convention and predictability, he would have sat back in the dining room or the lounge room, looked through window, seen the boy coming and said ‘‘Well here he comes. I knew he’d be back.” That’s not what happens and this is where the parable turns strange. The father is an oriental elder in long flowing garments. The least dignified thing he could do would be to run. He runs down the drive. The boy again predictably falls at his father’s feet and begins the word perfect speech. “I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” And at that point the Father says “stop, go no further”. Why? Because it is never a question of being worthy. “You are the son because you are the son because you are the son”. “You are the daughter because you are the daughter because you are the daughter”. The father sees the truth of the boy in a way the boy doesn’t see the truth himself. There can never be an earning of sonship or daughtership and that’s the extravagance of the welcome. He says “put the ring on his finger”. Now this was no mere decoration or decorative bling – this was the signet ring. He could sign the cheques. He’s given the freedom to do it all over again but it would be easier this time. He just has to sign a cheque. “Put the sandals on his feet”. In other words give him the freedom of the house. Why? Not because he’s worthy but because he’s the son. And put the best robe on him – the robe of honour. Why again? Not because he’s worthy, but because he’s the son. The extravagance of the father is mysterious and magnificent, it’s weird and wonderful & that’s where the parable focuses and that’s where this celebration focuses here this afternoon in the cathedral.
For at least 50 years but from the very dawn of Christianity in this city the religious have done many things and they are responsible for the greatest apostolic works that the Catholic church has ever known in this part of the world but at the heart of all the religious have done, men and women. Keep in mind too Rembrandt’s great painting of the prodigal son and his return. The figure of the father has two hands, one of them obviously a male hand, the other obviously a female hand. The father is father and mother. So women and men religious. What have they done? At the heart of everything they have done they have offered to everyone, but especially to those who are not worthy. Those who are judged useless, worthless. Those who are condemned by others. Those who are rejected. Those who have found no welcome, no hospitality. The religious above all have gone out in a way that is mysterious and magnificent to offer the welcome of God. In other words, to say to those whom the world rejects “I see you with the eyes of God and in you I see a beloved son”. “In you I see a beloved daughter”. That has been a unique and wonderful contribution and we give thanks for that here today.
We all know that the forms of religious life are changing and have changed over the 50 years of Catholic Religious Australia (CRAQld). That change will continue, but religious life has been one of the great constants of the Church through 2000 years. So there will be new forms, as older forms give way to newer forms of religious life. But as that happens we can never forget what has been done since the middle of the 19th century by religious men and women in this part of the world. You have been the prime evangelisers in a thousand different ways and lest we forget I have taken a decision. Once in this cathedral, I think it was here somewhere…a fresco of Mother Vincent Whitty and the first Mercy Sisters. In some ways, sadly with the renovation of the cathedral in 1989, that fresco was lost but the memory cannot be lost from this, the mother church and its precinct. Therefore I have decided that what we call old St Stephen’s School will be known as Mercy House as a tribute to the Mercy Sisters and their unique contribution. I have also decided that what we call the Catholic Centre will be called Penola Place in honour of the patron of the diocese, St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, but also as a tribute to the Josephite Sisters.
These are just names but it’s a symbolic gesture, and its not just symbolic as a gesture to the Mercy sisters and the Josephite sisters but it’s symbolic of an unpayable debt of gratitude to all the religious who have been not only part of the story of this Archdiocese but who have been the prime evangelisers. It is true that as such the religious have been at the very forefront of offering the extravagant and almost absurd welcome of God to those who are judged to be nothing. But they have been in that sense a call to the whole Church. What is the Church to be if not a place of extravagant welcome in a deeply unwelcoming world? St Paul says there is a new creation. Well what is the new creation? The new creation is the extravagant welcome against the tide; against the culture; a rebellion against the unwelcome of the world. The old creation has gone, with all its exclusions, and the new one is here. That’s the cry that rises at the heart of the church. That’s the call, for us not to succumb to convention and predictability. Not to be a hearth of unwelcome, but to be a hearth of extravagant welcome.
So as we look back we see now that the call is to us, as it was in the past to others, to become more missionary. Like the father who doesn’t sit back and wait for the son to come but who runs down the drive to meet the boy, and then again when the older son is locked in his world of resentment, what does the father do. He goes out. So here are we. If we are to be a new creation, and to follow in the footsteps of those who went before us, we are those who must become more missionary. In all of this we are lead by those, you the religious, who have said “yes” to the call of Christ and who have stood in our midst at the heart of the church as a sign of the new creation. As it has been in the past, so may it be in the future. Amen.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge
Sunday 10 March, 2013