... this year the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent is the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the most famous short story of all time, in which Jesus highlights the extraordinary celebration that takes place in heaven whenever a wayward son or daughter returns home to the Father's love.
This Friday and Saturday, March 4 and 5, mark one of the pivotal points of the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.
Pope Francis has asked every Diocese in the world to celebrate on these days "24 Hours for the Lord," marked by intense prayer and the continuous offering of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. In the "Face of Mercy," his Bull of Indication for the Jubilee of Mercy, he made plain the purpose of this special day within the holy year: to "place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the center once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God's mercy with their own hands" and allow "every penitent" to find the "source of true interior peace."
He scheduled it intentionally for the "Friday and Saturday preceding the Fourth Week of Lent," because on the Fourth Sunday of Lent we celebrate "Laetare" or "Rejoice!" Sunday, and every Catholic will have a chance to ponder God's greatest joy and how he wishes to share that joy with us.
That's because this year the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent is the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the most famous short story of all time, in which Jesus highlights the extraordinary celebration that takes place in heaven whenever a wayward son or daughter returns home to the Father's love: God the Father embraces the child, restores the child to full dignity, slaughters the fatted calf, throws a massive celebration, and invites everyone else to join the feast.
Right before this parable and intrinsically connected to it, Jesus presents the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, in which he underscores that "heaven rejoices more for one repentant sinner than for 99 who never needed to repent." Those are truly shocking words, a reality we could never believe unless the came from the lips of Truth incarnate: insofar as the only one who never needed to repent, because she never sinned, was the Blessed Virgin Mary and we know how much she pleased God by the continuous fiat of her life, Jesus is declaring that whenever God is able to reconcile a son or a daughter, his joy is, in a sense, almost 100 times greater.
How can that be? Jesus gives us a hint. The reason why the Father throws such an over-the-top celebration for the return of the prodigal son who had squandered not just half of his property but the treasure of their relationship was, he said, "because my son was dead but has come to life again, he was lost but has been found."
Every parent of multiple children should be able readily to relate to this. No matter how pleased a mom or dad would be with a child who always obeyed, loved, and acted honorably, that could not compare with the joy a parent would feel if a child who had been abducted, run away from home, or lost at sea, all of a sudden appeared at the family doorstep safe and sound. It could not compare with the joy of a parent would feel who, having seen a child flat-line, all of a sudden saw the monitor reignite minutes later.
The joyful truth that Jesus is underscoring is that every reconciliation is a true resurrection, when a child dead through "mortal sin" is spiritually resuscitated. This is one of the reasons why it is fitting that Jesus established the Sacrament of Penance on Easter Sunday evening. Whenever the Sacrament of Penance is celebrated as it ought to be, heaven celebrates as if it were Easter Sunday! And God wants us to have that joy, the joy of having our soul brought back to its baptismal splendor, the joy of having all our sins taken away by the Lamb of God and replaced by his Risen Life.
The "24 Hours for the Lord" initiative is not new. It's the third year that Pope Francis has led one in St. Peter's. In 2014, he stunned many by going to Reconciliation himself before hearing confessions for an hour. In 2015, he took advantage of the occasion to surprise everyone by announcing the Jubilee of Mercy. It's hard to predict what he will have up his white sleeve this year, as he leads the 24 Hours of Mercy devotion at 5 pm Rome time.
But why, we can ask, is there a need for a marathon session of around-the-clock confessions like the 24 Hours of the Lord? Why the need for similar outreaches like the "Light is On For You" initiatives in various Dioceses on Lenten Wednesday nights, or the Reconciliation Mondays on Monday of Holy Week in various New York Dioceses, or the Reconciliation Weekends like the Diocese of Fall River held in 2009 and 2010?
The reason there is a need for something "spectacular" is because the ordinary way of offering the Sacrament of Reconciliation has not been reaching everyone who needs God's mercy.
A 2008 CARA study sponsored by the US Bishops showed that only 26 percent of adult Catholics say they go to Confession the minimum of once a year. 30 percent go less than once a year and 45 percent never go. Of those who attend Mass every Sunday, 23 percent say they go to Reconciliation less than once a year and 15 percent report never going. This obviously isn't because sinning has stopped but because many Catholics treat the Sacrament as an optional part of the faith: 62 percent of Catholics, including 54 percent of regular Sunday Mass-goers, say that they can be good Catholics without going to Penance the canonical minimum.
In short, there's a crisis with regard to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a crisis tied to the loss of the sense of sin, poor preaching and sacramental catechesis, inconvenient hours and busier schedules, rejection of Catholic teaching on specific moral issues, and the novel idea that we have a right to receive Holy Communion no matter what the state of our soul. The Church announces special outreaches like the 24 Hours of the Lord, therefore, not only to try to reach the lost sheep on the peripheries but also in the pews.
Different Dioceses are responding to Pope Francis' summons in different ways. I'll be hearing confessions at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York for several hours on Friday night. In the Diocese of Fall River, the 24 Hours will be held at seven different Churches; in the Archdiocese of Boston, in 12. It would doubtless bring great joy to Heaven to see all of these sites teeming with God's children entering into celestial joy.
The Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has been stressing, must be "linked, first and foremost, to the Sacrament of Reconciliation." The 24 Hours for the Lord is designed to make that link plain and to spur as many as possible to come to experience the Jubilee Year's most important gift.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.