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Saturday, 15 September 2007


I, too, would like to extend a warm welcome to all of you participating in the celebration of Mass this afternoon. I greet the officials and representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as those of the other International Organizations in Vienna and the OSCE, and to the members of the diplomatic corps accredited to those organizations. My greetings extend to the pastor and people of St. Elisabeth's Church as well. For many years now, the Permanent Mission of the Holy See has organized this Mass on the vigil of the General Conference of the IAEA. The Holy See, fully approving the goals of this Organization, is a member of it since its founding and continues to support its activity. I will have more to say on this during my formal intervention during the General Conference. This evening, however, I want to share with you some reflections on the Scriptures we have just heard and to suggest some ways in which those Scriptures might come alive in our daily lives.

With good reason, someone has said that humankind's deepest need and highest achievement is forgiveness. Today's excerpt from the second book of the Bible, Exodus, speaks of one incident of a provoked God forgiving his people.

Throughout the Exodus from Egypt, God's people complained. Now, while Moses was on Mount Sinai, they complained that Moses had abandoned them, so they moulded the golden calf-idol. God announced that He would destroy the people for this, as so Moses appealed to Him to forgive.

Because of God's loving kindness for His people, He forgave. So what began as a story of a people's sinfulness really became a story of God's forgiveness.

God's forgiveness on Mount Sinai foreshadowed what Jesus would do and teach. Today's portion of St. Luke's Gospel begins with the Pharisee's complaint that Jesus was eating with sinners. These people would never make the guest list at formal diplomatic banquets or appear in newspapers' society pages. To counter the Pharisees, Jesus told three stories about God reaching out about forgiveness.

Because the three stories are of the lost - the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son - some call this section the "Lost and Found Department". It should more properly be called "God's Joy in Forgiving Sinners". Jesus' three stories have as their essential purpose the revelation that God's love is broader and deeper than people's love, and can forgive even when people would refuse to do so.

Allow me to concentrate on the last of these three stories, often called the "Parable of the Prodigal Son". It might be better called the "Story of the Prodigal Father" - for "prodigal" means spendthrift, and when we think about it we see that it is indeed the Father who is spendthrift, lavishing His love, welcome and forgiveness. In fact, the English writer, Charles Dickens, once referred to this parable as the "most beautiful story ever told".

It's been said that the ingratitude of a child is more hurtful to a parent than the assassination attempt of a servant. What concerned this father most was that, whether he complied with his young son's heartless and callous request for his inheritance or not, he was going to lose his child.

Eventually, the son's misery brought him to his senses. Here he was, in a pig sty, envying the food of an animal that was itself not fit to be food. He had hit rock bottom. He had reached the first stage of seeking forgiveness. He determined, however selfishly, to do what we sang in today's Responsorial Psalm: He would arise and go to his father.

The Father's options with his returning son were many: he could scold him, or demand an apology, or be condescendingly accepting, or disown him. Or he could demand that the son make restitution by working as a hired hand.

But the Father chose forgiveness.

Now there are many ways of forgiving. It's often done reluctantly, holding back, conveying continuing guilt to the recipient. Sometimes forgiveness is done as a favour. Worse, at times the forgiver, in a form of blackmail, implies that the other's sin will still in some way be held over him. With this father, though, the forgiveness was total, offering to treat the son's sins as though they had never happened. And it was joyous.

Whereas the father had interrupted the younger son's prepared confession out of love, the elder son in turn interrupted the father's expression of forgiveness because of small-spiritedness. The elder brother showed meanness of speech in referring to his brother as "your son" rather than as "my brother". He alleged without evidence that the younger brother had swallowed up the father's property with prostitutes. This is the kind of rash judgement in which the self-righteous often indulge. The father's answer was heart-rending: "My son, everything I have is yours".

The story of the Prodigal Son actually has no ending. We don't know whether the elder brother goes into the house to join in the celebration, or whether he nurses his self-righteousness outside. There's no ending because it's not just a story: it's a challenge to each one of us. What would you do? Would you go in or stay outside?

Remembering that forgiveness is humankind's deepest need and highest achievement, let's look into the concealed places where lost people tend to hide, and contribute to the healing forgiveness that we and our world so greatly crave.