‘The Prodigal Son’ — Luke 15:11-32 …he found himself in dire need. 

I’ve loved going to confession ever since I was a child. I’ve needed it since I was a child. I don’t really remember my first confession. I do remember wanting to go to different priests — some I regretted going to, some I found very gentle. As a child, I went primarily out of fear. Fear is not a bad motivation. The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord, but perfect love casts out all fear. I have more and more come to understand that perfect love in the Sacrament of Confession.  

I’m not one of those who can rationalize my sin, and from the time of my childhood I have found great relief in unburdening to God in this way. Some of the happiest times in my childhood were riding my bike home from confession.  

Somehow I had it in my mind that if I died on the way there I was in trouble, but riding back, yes, cleansed of sin, if I died I would go straight to heaven. Yes, as a child, I would ride a couple of miles to church on Saturday afternoon to go to confession. Holy Family had confession every Saturday from 3-4 and from 6:30-7:30.  

One of the things I probably learned from my mother, almost to the point of scrupulosity is “honesty.” Lying was the one intolerable sin. It was something she couldn’t tolerate. She also couldn’t tolerate wrongdoing. So I often found myself in a predicament, because I was indeed a mischievous child.  

I discovered that in confession I could be totally and completely honest. As a child I went face-to-face because I didn’t want to hide anything. But, as I got into the high school years and struggled with some of the more embarrassing things teens get themselves into, I found myself wanting to go behind the screen. It was sometimes terrifying to confess sins to the priest while I wondered if they were mortal or even forgivable.  

Over the years I found that Father M. was the easiest to go to. He was a retired Franciscan priest who lived at Holy Family. He was hard of hearing and didn’t ask a lot of questions. He became my regular confessor. With him I never went face-to-face, but always behind the screen, yet I would often do my penance in the pews just outside the confessional door. I wanted him to know me, but I didn’t want him to know me in my sinfulness.  

…where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. 

Often in my high school and college years I found myself going to confession to relieve my guilt, but at the same time I continued sinning. I kept doing and confessing the same things. I still feel like this sometimes, that I’m confessing the same sins over and over. I keep squandering the inheritance that God has given me, indulging in things that I know don’t bring me life and I know don’t bring me freedom, but I find myself choosing to do what I do not want to do. Like St. Paul: “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Rom 7:15). 

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” 

At some point along the way I stopped trying, stopped listening to that call deep within. I’d managed to convince myself that God wasn’t calling me to the priesthood, or at least that I’d decided not to respond. I gave in to the way of life where drinking became the focus, with the weekend starting on Thursday or maybe even Wednesday. There was partying and smoking and women, girlfriends and giving in to the passions and desires. And I got to a point where it was a lot of fun, even though I knew that it wasn’t me. Yet, it was how I was living. I was trying to prove that I didn’t deserve to be called to the priesthood. I didn’t deserve to be called His son.  

“Your brother has returned...” 

It was my older brother Bob who gave me the courage to answer God’s call. Bobby is a few years older than I am, and he was working while I was still finishing up college. One evening he told my parents he needed to tell them something. He was so embarrassed to confide in them: “I think God might be calling me to the priesthood.”  

When my mother told me about this conversation I shared something with her. “Mom, I think I might be called too. I’ve thought about it all my life, since I was a child. I’ve never told anyone.” Bob and I made a retreat at the seminary together. At the end of the weekend God made it so evident that now was the time. He was calling me, and I was ready to say yes. I stayed, and my older brother Bob left.

While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son… 

I was once told that we don’t find a good spiritual director. A good spiritual director finds us. I think the same is true with confessors. God sends priests into our lives at the right time. In the seminary I had the opportunity to go to many priests for confession.  

I found myself wanting to go to different priests to try and get all of their advice. It was a time of conversion. And many priests helped to show me the unconditional love of the Father. Father S. would always say: “Be gentle, be gentle with yourself. Rome wasn’t built in a day.” That and his many other maxims brought a smile to my face, but to be honest, they were truly good advice that I find myself saying to penitents today.  

Father H. cautioned me, after naming a sin, “be careful with that.” It struck me as to the seriousness of toying around with any sin in our lives. “Be careful with that.” Father O. would often give me the penance to pray with Psalm 139 “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” This has become a major theme of my spiritual life, and many of my penitents have come to know and love this psalm. I found that, with all these different priests, I was able to find wisdom and insight.  

Over these years there was deep and profound conversion in my life. I loved my spiritual director but wanted to go to confession more often than I could get out to see him. I found myself seeking a confessor, someone who would know me, love me, walk with me and help me to grow. 

My time of discernment was often a rough ride as I tried to find the rudder and listen to the voice of God. There were times of great difficulty and soul searching, wandering and yearning. I had a difficult time trusting anyone, and there were times when I probably trusted the wrong people and listened to the wrong voice. 

There were also times when I ran from the voices of those I could trust. I wondered if there would always be this running so that no one ever got too close. But I did desire closeness. I did want to trust, and there was that deep need for unconditional love. God knows that this is our deepest desire, and so, out of great compassion, even when we are “a long way off,” he sends people into our lives. 

The father embraced him and kissed him. 

At the seminary we had communal penance service. It was a dark autumn night. The chapel was dimly lit. All the seminarians were in the main nave facing the sanctuary. The priests were introduced and then went to their places. In back corner of the sanctuary was a priest I’d met before when he led a class retreat for us a couple of years ago.  

I noticed how he treated the guys who went to him for confession. He took their hands. He prayed with them. He laid his hands on them. I summoned the courage to stand up and go to that priest. As I sat there in the sanctuary in the warmth of the dim light, it seemed like it was just him and me.  

I began to pour out my soul. Everything: the sins, the struggles, the darkness, the questioning. I felt completely empty and lost. As I saw him look into my eyes with great compassion I did something that I never do, especially not sitting in front of the entire seminary. Tears began. I couldn’t stop them. I didn’t want to. I cried as I let it all out. I sat there and wept as that priest put his arms around me and held me.  

He understood the darkness; he helped me to see it as part of the journey. I’ll never forget him saying to me, “I’m not surprised you’re going through this, you are a man of deep prayer.” In that moment, there was a great deal of hope. A few days later I received a note from him that I still have.  

“‘The Feast of St. Francis’ 

“Mike — just a note to let you know that I continue to hold you in my heart and in my prayers. Like St. Francis, may you find in the gifts of Creation the constant word of God reminding you that you are loved and cared for. May the Holy Spirit flood your mind and heart with light, with counsel, with direction and with hope. Though you may walk in the valley of darkness, the Lord is with you with His rod and staff to give you courage. Be in Peace — Fr. V”

I was lost and had been found.  

What I’ve found is that, by consistently confessing to one priest, he knows me. He knows the depths of my soul. And guess what? No matter what I say he looks at me with great love. Confession has become an encounter with the Father. It has become an experience of God’s unconditional love through the Son. In this sacrament I have come to know the Lord.  

“Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” 

Henri Nouwen said in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son that the son must become the father. Over that year, through confession and spiritual direction I came to know the father’s love in a very real, incarnational way. My confessor has also helped me to receive that love from others whom God has placed in my life to hold me and walk with me.  

As my time at the seminary quickly drew closer to the end, it occurred to me that I would be doing this for others. I, the son who had come to know in such a real way the love of our Lord, would become the Father’s love for others. How could I do this? I wasn’t ready. I still had my own redemption that was needed.  

My fifth year was another tough reentry into the seminary. This time I told them I wasn’t ready to be ordained and needed to take some time for healing. It was a weekend of brokenness and a time of opening it all up to my confessor, another priest who was a counselor and my former spiritual director. I returned to the seminary a weekend late. 

The guys called it my “vacation.” They still do. If only they could have known the depths of interior work that I did in that weekend. And I decided, with God’s initiative, to accept — even though unworthy — the gift of ordination. With the approval of my spiritual director, I took his advice to “put my hand to the plough and don’t look back” (Lk 9:62). 

On ordination day I once more experienced the love of God as I lay there in prostration with the church singing the Litany of the Saints, asking the saints to pray for me. I knelt before the bishop as he anointed my hands with oil. I bowed my head humbly as my spiritual director placed the stole over my shoulders and dressed me in the chasuble. I wept as I knelt while all the priests of the diocese laid their hands on me. The son becomes the father.  

“This son of mine was dead and has come to life again.”

This truly, for me, is the most wonderful part of being a priest. That the Lord uses me — a newly ordained, young guy, who has been so lost himself — to bring others home. I have seen the tears and the brokenness. I have spoken the words sometimes unknown to me that have brought healing and hope. I have witnessed the presence of the resurrected Lord when I lay my hands on a penitent’s head and speak those words of absolution.  

I have seen life when I finish speaking those words and see the gleam in the forgiven one’s eyes and the twitch of lips beginning to smile. I so much want everyone to experience this in confession. These are some of the times when it seems the Lord is so evidently working through me when I, too, am moved with compassion. Like the Father, I experience loving unconditionally. The more people reveal themselves, the more my heart is moved with compassion. I have found that I see them with even greater love.  

People often ask me if priests remember their sins. One of the blessings of my personality is that I’m a little scatterbrained — I don’t remember the details. But I do remember.  

I do remember the humility of those who reveal themselves. I do remember the way God moves me with compassion. I do remember the transformation and redemption that I see happening in front of my eyes. I do remember a person who has had the courage to bring everything to the light and to discover that they are still beautiful, still lovable. It is that beauty that I remember. And so I do see them differently. I see them with great love and compassion.  

Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. 

There is great joy and celebration in the Sacrament of Confession. I went to confession last night before writing this. As I drove home in my truck my heart was so light I could barely stay in my seat. All is well with the world. I slept like a baby and woke up grateful in the morning. I am so filled with joy and love.  

It’s kind of a tradition for priests to ask a blessing from a newly ordained, and some priests have also asked to have their confession heard. I was most humbled by a priest who first nurtured my vocation at my home parish of Holy Family when he asked me to hear his confession in the Vatican just days after my ordination. I’ve also gone to confession to priests that I know closely, my good friends that I spend my day off with.  

There’s something about being able to reveal yourself and know it will remain unspoken. And though confession is a sacrament of conversion and transformation, our lives are an ongoing conversion. There will be times when we stop celebrating, when for some reason we leave the dance and look on from the outside. Sometimes it happens subtly, sometimes the record skips abruptly. How do I know when I have left the celebration? It’s similar to the question people often ask me “How often do I need to go to confession?” Well, this is when I know I need to go.  

He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.” 

I know when I begin to look at others with disdain that I have left the celebration. When I begin to judge others and get trapped in my own anger. It’s time once more to return to the sacrament and be immersed in God’s unconditional love. When my heart is hardened and I begin to become self-righteous and angry and hold others in disdain it’s because I have once more chosen to set off to a distant country and squander my inheritance. I have once more found myself with the swine, in need, and dying of hunger. And I must once more confess. I have sinned against heaven and earth, and I no longer deserve to be your son.  

Again and again, I experience the Father bringing me to my senses. It’s less and less that I leave the celebration, and now He brings me back to my senses more quickly. He continues to initiate and to run to me. I find myself saying to penitents the words that I myself need to hear.  

And I hear the voice of the Father speaking to all of us through His Son: 

“My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” TP 

Father Denk, a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland and ordained in 2007, is a parochial vicar of St. Barnabas parish in Northfield, Ohio.