Pastor Column: Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 31, 2019

Pastor Column: Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 31, 2019

Msgr. Joseph Tracy, St. Stanislaus Parish


One of the most familiar and beloved stories in all the Scriptures is the focus for our consideration today: the parable of the prodigal. We know the story pretty well. The self-absorbed, greedy teenager demands his inheritance early from his loving father, squanders every cent on the good life, and is reduced to taking care of pigs when the money runs out. When putting out the slop for the pigs to eat, he comes to the realization that he has been a fool. He travels home, where his father welcomes him in thanksgiving. No questions asked; simply a welcome home.
Many of us have imagined our own versions of the story, but perhaps the most insightful has been one artist’s interpretation on canvas. In 1669, the Dutch master Rembrandt (1606-1669) painted his famous “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” It was one of his last and greatest works. The artist portrays the father welcoming his son home. It is in the details, however, that much is revealed.

First, the father: Rembrandt portrays him as an old man and the picture of serenity. His face reflects peace and tranquility. He appears to be partially blind. He sees his son from his heart. His hands pull his son into him with maternal tenderness and love.
The prodigal appears to have collapsed before his father. He is exhausted and emaciated, his head is shaved. He is dirty and scared. He no longer has the swagger he did when he left. All defiance has been replaced by humility. He knows he has wasted his life.
Finally, back in the shadows is the bitter and angry older brother. His brother’s return will be a hard adjustment for all of them, especially him. He remains in the darkness, outside of the light and color of the father’s joy and the brother’s gratitude.
Rembrandt’s masterpiece invites all of us to find ourselves in each of the characters. Perhaps it is in the father’s joy at having his child back; or in the prodigal facing responsibility for the hurt he has caused; or maybe in the older brother’s understandable but divisive resentment for leaving in the first place. The work of forgiveness requires us to face our own culpability for hurting others. It requires putting side our hurts and resentments for the bigger goal of being reunited with those from whom we have been separated. May Rembrandt’s depiction of forgiveness and gratitude lead us to a conversion with some of our relationships, and the struggle that you and I may have in reconciling them, forgiving others as we have been forgiven by almighty God.

Deacon Homily: Third Sunday of Lent (C), March 24, 2019

Deacon Homily: Third Sunday of Lent (C), March 24, 2019

Deacon Tony Bellitto, St. Stanislaus Parish


THE FIG TREE

We hear in today’s Gospel about the fig tree. So let me ask you, what does a fig tree, and a garden of tomato plants, and the Blessed Virgin Mary have in common? Give up? Those are the three things that I would always see in the yard of every Italian Catholic household in my neighborhood where I grew up in the Bronx in New York City – a fig tree in the front yard, tomato plants in the backyard, and always a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, painted, of course in blue and white. And maybe also a cement birdbath with Saint Francis and a wrought iron fence too.

In the Bible, the first time we hear about the fig tree is at the very beginning, in Genesis, when we hear that Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. So the fig tree has a place of great honor. In the Garden of Eden we know there was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the fig tree. In fact, the Bible never specifies the exact kind of forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate when they disobeyed God. We refer to it as an apple, but it does not actually specify. So my theory is that it might have been a fig or a tomato, and that Adam and Eve were actually the first Italians. But that’s just my own theory. We’ll never know for sure.

The fig tree thrives in a warm climate, like in Israel and southern Italy. So when it was brought to the northeastern United States, it had to be protected from being damaged by the cold weather. So every winter all the homeowners in my neighborhood would completely wrap up the fig tree in plastic or burlap tied with ropes, and then top it off with a 5-gallon plastic bucket. All of this was to keep out the rain and snow, because if any moisture came in contact with any part of the tree, it would freeze and eventually kill off the whole tree. It was a big effort to winterize the fig tree, and if you had several, it was quite a job. So all during the winter months you would see in my whole neighborhood all these ugly looking monstrosities – these objects 30 feet tall with buckets on top in all the yards that looked nothing like a tree, but just this hideous looking thing wrapped in plastic, which made the whole property look really weird and even scary to a little kid. I remember that.

The point is that this type of tree, unlike others, requires a lot of extra care. The fig tree in the Gospel needed more care than it was getting if it had any chance of bearing fruit. The gardener’s desire to give the tree one more year, so that he could cultivate the soil and fertilize around it shows patience and mercy. It shows a willingness on his part to keep trying, and to not lose hope. But it will take hard work – an intentional effort on his part.

The gardener has confidence that positive results are still possible. He will offer more care, more patience, and more time.

We too need to be cared for, if we are to bear fruit and to flourish in this life.

We too need to care for other people, if we are to help them to bear fruit and to flourish.

Is there anybody in your life that needs more care? Maybe it’s you.

Our bodies need to be cared for. Our spirits, our hearts, our emotions need to be cared for. There are lots of times when we need more care. There are lots of times when we can provide more care to others who need our help.

As I watch my grandchildren, I see that they need lots of care. They’re only babies,

so they need constant care and attention. They can never be left alone. When they cry, they need care – to be held, or fed, or to have a diaper change, or to take a nap. We don’t say, “Hey, kid, I just gave you a bottle 8 hours ago. Do you need more care already?” Of course not. But it can be exhausting for young parents adjusting to this new responsibility which can become all-consuming. I see my grown children dealing with that.

Other people also need lots of care and attention at different stages of life – the sick, the elderly, the handicapped, or someone recovering from an injury or surgery. We need more care when we’re suffering emotional depression, or stress at work, or conflict in our relationships, or when we’re grieving the loss of a loved one, or battling an addiction, or just straining under the weight of life’s many troubles.

We can sometimes be the person giving that care. We can sometimes be the person receiving that care. In all of these situations, we need to exercise patience.

We need to be patient with a parent or grandparent who is losing her memory or cannot live alone without constant assistance any more.

We need to be patient with our adult children who might no longer be practicing their faith. Perhaps, like the fig tree, they are in a temporary period of dormancy. We need to give them time and space, so that through our witness and their own life experiences, their faith may yet again flourish in the future, as the soil around their roots is cultivated.

Just like the fig tree does not grow and bear fruit overnight, so too our relationship with God takes time to grow. Love takes time to grow. Faith takes time to grow. We cannot expect instant results and immediate gratification. So what does it look like to bear fruit in our lives?

For parents, it might be the way you put a priority on providing for your children’s needs, listening to what they have to say at mealtimes, and passing on our faith to them by living it out in your daily acts of love and self-less sacrifice. A strong, faithful, loving family is a fruit that we can bear.

For a working professional, it might be having the strength of conviction to live out the Gospel values in the workplace, despite opposition or criticism, in ethical situations where you’re being pressured to compromise your standards. Honesty and integrity in business is a fruit that we can bear.

For an older retired person, it might be using your time and talent to volunteer in any number of different community programs whose mission you support, extending yourself in assistance to others. Community service is a fruit that we can bear.

God is the divine gardener who loves and cares for us. He cultivates souls. He loosens the hard soil around our hearts. He patiently applies the fertilizer of grace. He prunes us and encourages us with his mercy. He looks into our heart with love and patiently awaits a change of attitude and of conversion. He rejoices when we bear fruit. God’s mercy heals us and offers us forgiveness.

God is present with us – inspiring our growth, enabling our efforts, and blessing our accomplishments. Through his assistance, we can bear the good fruits of faithful commitment and service to others.

And so, my brothers and sisters, let us intercede for each other, as we join our efforts to meet the needs of all those who are placed in our care. And let us accept the patient cultivation of the divine gardener so that we may bear the sweetest of fruits.

May God bless you all.