Grown-ups reading The Oratory Parish Magazine will remember the years of rationing that followed the Second World War, when every ounce of sugar, drop of petrol and sheet of paper was held to have value.
How distant that world seems today, when almost everything we buy comes swathed in layers of packaging that is torn off and immediately discarded. Supermarkets and fast food chains consign tons of unsold perishables to dustbins every night. Public buildings are heated to such blistering temperatures that it should not surprise us if hospitals become incubators for tropical diseases.
One of the best-known stories of wastefulness ever told is the parable of the Prodigal Son. Having turned his back on his family and squandered his patrimony on fast living, he finds himself in destitution. The foreign land in which he takes up residence is blighted by famine, so that he is reduced to coveting the husks that he is employed to feed to swine. In the Jewish context in which this story was told, we can assume that the boy’s proximity to pigs is a sign of moral degradation.
This parable might be read as an allegory for the society in which we live today. Pope Francis recently decried a “throw-away culture” which he says has “enslaved the hearts and minds of so many.”
Increasing wastefulness with material goods in recent decades has been accompanied by prodigality with the treasures of a spiritual patrimony. Many of our contemporaries have turned their backs on the Christian heritage on which our civilisation was constructed. As a result of this, many who on the material level have been blessed with an embarras de richesses now find themselves in a land that has been blighted by spiritual and moral famine.
The parable of the Prodigal Son should give us hope. It is when he has hit rock bottom that the boy wakes up to the desperation of his predicament. In his hunger pangs his mind returns to the comforts and the security of his father’s house – so much so that he resolves to return home and to offer himself as a lowly servant in the household.
Is our society hurtling towards rock bottom? The context for the Holy Father’s reflections on wastefulness was an audience with gynaecologists in the Vatican. Amongst other casualties of the “throw-away culture”, His Holiness identified unborn children, and also the elderly who are sometimes cast aside as if they had passed a sell-by date. When human beings, each and every one created in God’s Image, are consigned to the scrap heap in their thousands every day, it is hard to imagine how much lower there is to descend.
There are indications of an increasing awareness of the desperation of this predicament. The vulgarity and aggression that are characteristic of so much contemporary culture seem to indicate a growing sense of dissatisfaction. At the same time there are so many signs of good faith and a sincere desire to ‘make the world a better place’. We must never forget the essential goodness of humanity which, while wounded by Original Sin, has been created by Almighty God for truth, love, and life eternal. Within every man and woman alive on this planet today there is a God-given capacity for expansion and holiness. Our vocation as Christians is to recognise this potential in our neighbour and to do what we can to make it flourish. We know in faith that ultimately the only solution to the world’s problems is to be found in a Person – Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
So the throw-away culture presents not only a challenge but also a great opportunity. Surely the circumstances are ideal for us to say: “Wake up! Return to your Father’s house. There is no need to live off these filthy husks that are only fit for pigs. A feast has been laid out for you at the marriage feast of the Lamb of God.”
The Prodigal Son, however, is blessed with one great advantage. The thought of his father’s house evokes nostalgia. It is a place that conjures up memories of security and love. Many of our contemporaries do not have any such nostalgia for the Church. Rather, the image that comes to their minds is of the abuses of authority and betrayals of trust that have soiled the garments of the Immaculate Bride of Christ in recent decades.
This means that we must be patient and understanding with those who, through no fault of their own, have gained a most negative view of the Church as an institution. To borrow the jargon of the spin-doctors, we have to ‘detoxify the brand’. It is down to us to make the Church that we love attractive by our holiness. We have to demonstrate by the peace that is in our hearts and by our generosity of spirit that the Church has something priceless to offer to the world today. And we have to bear witness to the Faith, Hope and Charity that are within us, so that those who are lost will come back to the House of our Father.
The Pope recently described the Church as a field hospital after a battle. When, in the Creed, we proclaim our belief in a ‘Holy’ Church, we mean this in much the same way that we might describe a hospital as ‘healthy’, at least when we are talking about the Church on earth. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, and She has been endowed with everything necessary to make us holy, just as a hospital has the means to foster health. We do not come to Mass expecting to find a congregation full of perfect saints any more than we expect to find the incumbents of hospital beds in excellent health. But anyone coming into our church should find at least find humility, kindness, and healing.
At the Oratory we have many strangers coming to Mass. We need to ask ourselves what sort of reception they are likely to receive. Is the worship that we pay to Our Lord in our liturgical functions matched by the solicitude we extend to Him in our neighbour, and especially in the disadvantaged?
We should assume that the young woman who does not genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament and who pushes past us with her two unruly children, knocking our Missal to the floor, has been brought to us by God. Perhaps she has not yet been baptised, or been to Mass since her first Holy Communion. Perhaps she is a single mother, and is currently under unbearable pressure to have an abortion to prevent the birth of a third child. Her emotions on entering the building include embarrassment, reluctance and fear. But some stirring of Divine Grace in her heart has given her the courage to cross the threshold.
What will she find? Heaven forbid that she should encounter the disapproving frown of the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. May she find in us the merciful and loving face of Our Saviour, and through our witness and kindness may she come to realise that a life lived in Christ has a value that is beyond price.