“I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:31).
In the recent past, I was privileged to serve in a parish in southern California. One of my pastoral duties was to offer Mass for the residents of a youth correctional institution.
It was a detention center for juvenile delinquents between the ages of 14 and 19. They were there for serious offenses ranging from break-ins and shoplifting to violent gang fights and attempted murder. It was truly heart breaking to see those young men, deprived of a normal life with the freedom that every adolescent eagerly desires. Constrained by grinding poverty and the imperious necessity to make ends meet, those young men saw no alternative but to belong to the local gangs that trafficked in drugs and jealously guarded of their “turf.” Invasion of a rival gang’s “turf” could mean savage attack and even murder.
Even as the young men filed into the classroom where I was to offer Mass, I felt an intense compassion for them in much the same way that Jesus felt for the people of His time — they were like sheep without a shepherd. I just could not but remember the words of St. Augustine: “There go I, but for the grace of God.” And this is just what Pope Francis emphasises in his book, The Name of God is Mercy.
Joining my hands, I prayed earnestly to the Holy Spirit to reach out and touch the hearts of those young men with His grace, His power and His love. I began by greeting them: “Good morning, friends!” And that sincere and cordial greeting touched the right chords in their wounded hearts. They sensed a genuine respect and heartfelt compassion.
In my homily, I simply dwelt on just one theme — God’s unconditional forgiveness and boundless love. I emphasised the fact that no matter what the past may have been, each and every one of them had a future. All they had to do was to look ahead with hope and confidence both in themselves and in God. In a word, I buoyed their hope and reinforced their self-worth. I can honestly say that I was only God’s mouthpiece, His ambassador of hope, and His messenger of mercy.
The First Reading was read by an 18-year-old young man, who read slowly, reverently and articulately. I was most impressed. At the end of Mass, I placed my hand on his shoulder and said: “Please, can I have a word with you? I want to tell you that you read very well, and I was very, very impressed.” It was both a gesture of recognition and appreciation.
The young man was touched and said, “Thank you, Father. Can you spare me a few minutes?” “Of course, I can,” I replied. And we sat down facing each other. He said that he was 10 years old when he saw his father shot dead by a 12-year-old gangster. This brutal murder so angered him that he vowed vengeance not just on the murderer, but on the entire rival gang. And that is just what he did, till he was arrested and sent to the correctional institution as a juvenile delinquent.
I listened with attention and compassion. And then he added: “Father, after listening to your sermon this morning, I want you to know that God has touched my heart and I want to change. I assure you that my past is a closed book and that I will strive, with God’s help, to build a new future when I am discharged in a few months. All I want is a job for a start.”
Later, I learned through a social worker that he had been released and had secured a decent job in a Hollywood studio. Wherever he is, I am confident that he has been true to his resolve. May God continue to protect, guide and bless him! Indeed, God permits U-turns — anywhere, anytime, anyhow! Said Jesus: “I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.…There is more joy in heaven oven repentant sinner, than over ninety-nine virtuous people who have no need of repentance” (Lk 5:31; 15:7).
This is best illustrated by the heart-warming story of the encounter between Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and Zacchaeus, “a lost sheep” (Lk 19:1-10). Zacchaeus was a tax-collector, who was extremely rich and not necessarily by honest means. This explains why he was detested by the locals. He had obviously heard so much about Jesus and His merciful outreach to all without exception. Keen on seeing it for himself, he eagerly wanted to meet Jesus.
So when he heard that Jesus was in town, Zacchaeus joined the curious, noisy crowds. But he was of small stature, and so his only alternative was to climb into a sycamore tree so that he could get a better look. A few moments later, to his disbelief, Jesus stopped under the tree and said to him, “Zacchaeus, please do come down; I wish to be a guest at your house today.”
The evangelist Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was so astounded that he literally jumped from his perch and ran to make Jesus welcome. Of course, this raised the eyebrows and the resentment of the people, who complained: “We just can’t believe our eyes — he has gone to be a guest of one who is a sinner.” However, for the grateful and repentant Zacchaeus, that was an opportune time for a U-turn.
Standing up publicly and unashamedly, he said to Jesus: “I am truly sorry for my sinful past. From now on I will readily give half my possessions to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay him back four times as much.” Jesus said: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek out and to save the lost” (Lk 19:1-10).
By all standards, this is a truly inspiring story and for a variety of reasons.
• First, it proves conclusively that God has no favorites.
• Second, it confirms that no one is outside the circle of the merciful and compassionate love of God, whose name is Mercy.
• Third, it demonstrates that no matter what the past has been, every individual can carve a new future with hope and confidence. This was so true of the young man in the earlier story.
• Fourth, it emphasises the vital importance for repentance if we are to be reconciled to God and enjoy both His favor and His grace.
• And, fifth, it demonstrates the specific need not just for a firm purpose of amendment, but also the Christian duty to make good the wrongs done to another as best as one possibly can as Zacchaeus so commendably did.
Indeed, God permits U-turns — anytime, anywhere, anyhow. “I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.… There is more joy in heaven oven a repentant sinner, than over 99 virtuous people who have no need of repentance” (Lk 5:31; 15:7).
We are truly blessed with the seven Sacraments, which are channels of God’s unfathomable love, mercy, power and grace. And one of the seven sacraments is the sacrament of reconciliation. Pope Francis strongly encourages all to frequent this sacrament as often as necessary. This sacrament is just not intended to have our sins cleansed, but also to have us empowered by the all-important and all-powerful grace of God to carve a new future.
A psychiatrist once said that if his patients would frequent the Sacrament of Reconciliation often, he would be out of business: And he adds, “So many … need to speak to a priest, not to a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist can minister to the wounds of the minds; but a priest, with the power of God, can minister to the wounds of the spirit.”
To restore his broken relationship with God, Zacchaeus needed to have the wounds of his spirit healed. For that bond to be restored, he had to make a candid confession of his sins and seek the forgiveness of God. Therein lies the power and efficacy of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Said Jesus to His apostles, and their successors — His priests, “Whose sins you forgive, they shall be forgiven” (Jn 20:23). So the priest in the confessional is but the human representative of Christ Jesus and the visible face of our compassionate God, whose Name is Mercy.
FATHER VALLADARES writes from Myrtle Bank, South Australia.