On Healing a Father-Child Relationship

Father Cantalamessa Comments on Parable of Prodigal Son

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ROME, SEPT. 10, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Here is the commentary of Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, on the evangelical passage of the liturgy of this Sunday, which recounts the parable of the prodigal son.



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Luke 15:1-32

"But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' And they began to make merry."

In today's liturgy the whole of Chapter 15 of Luke's Gospel is read, which contains the three parables called "of mercy": the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. "There was a man who had two sons ..." Suffice it to hear these few words for anyone who has a minimum of familiarity with the Gospel to exclaim immediately: the parable of the prodigal son. On other occasions I have pointed out the spiritual meaning of the parable; this time I would like to emphasize an aspect of it that is timely but little developed. Deep down, the parable is no more than the reconciliation between a father and a son, and we all know how vital reconciliation is for the happiness of fathers and children.

Who knows why literature, art, entertainment and advertising only take advantage of one human relationship: the erotic dimension between man and woman, between husband and wife. It would seem that there is no other in life. Advertising and entertainment do no more than cook this dish in a thousand sauces. They leave unexplored, instead, another human relationship that is equally universal and vital, another of life's great sources of joy: the father-son relationship, the joy of fatherhood. The only work in literature that really addresses this topic is F. Kafka's "Letter to a Father" (Turgenev's romance "Fathers and Sons," speaks, more than of fathers and sons, of different generations).

But if one goes deeply into the heart of man, with serenity and objectivity, one discovers that, in the majority of cases, an intense and serene relationship obtained with one's children is, for the adult and mature man, no less interesting and satisfactory than the relationship with a woman. We also know how important such a relationship is for a son or daughter, and the terrible void that its absence or rupture leaves.

Just as cancer usually attacks the most delicate organs in man and woman, so the destructive power of sin and evil attacks the most vital nerve centers of human existence. There is nothing that can be more subjected to abuse, exploitation and violence than the man-woman relationship; and there is nothing that is more exposed to deformation as the father-child relationship: authoritarianism, paternalism, rebellion, rejection, lack of communication.

However, one must not generalize. There are cases of most beautiful relationships between fathers and children. We know, however, that there are also, and more numerous, negative cases. In the prophet Isaiah we read this exclamation of God: "Sons I have reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me" (1:2). I think that many fathers today know, from experience, what these words mean.

The suffering is reciprocal; it is not as in the parable, where the fault is totally and solely the son's. ... There are fathers whose most profound suffering in life is to be rejected or directly disdained by their children. And there are children whose most profound and unconfessed suffering is to feel misunderstood, unappreciated or frankly rejected by the father.

I have insisted on the human and existential implication of today's parable. But it is not just a question of improving the quality of life in this world. The initiative of a great reconciliation between fathers and children and the need for a profound healing of their relationship enters again in the effort of a new evangelization. We know how much the relationship with the earthly father can influence, positively or negatively, the relationship with the heavenly Father and, therefore, Christian life itself. When John the Baptist, the Precursor, was born, the angel said that one of his tasks was "to turn the hearts of fathers to the children, and the hearts of children to the fathers." A task that today is more timely than ever.

[Italian original published in Famiglia Cristiana; translation by ZENIT]