Children occasionally wander off, casting parents into a state of anxiety and panic. As a celibate, I can only imagine how that experience must feel.
Adult children also wander off. As a priest who minsters to addicts and inmates, I share common ground with parents whose adult children get lost on the road of life. The agony that I feel is but a shadow of theirs. The parable of the Prodigal Son, however, fills some gaps.
When I reflect upon the passage, I wonder if the father called for “the finest robe” in order to cover a sunken chest and protruding ribs. When he called for a ring, did he shove the metal band past a knuckle swollen from a bar fight? When he stooped to place shoes on his son’s feet, did he remember the barefoot boy he once took fishing? Did the smell of hog manure remind him of changing the kid’s diaper? Did grime between the toes recall scrubbing the boy behind the ears after a dusty day of putting up hay?
Most of all, I wonder if, after the father rose to his feet, did his son struggle to meet his gaze?
The parable omits this moment, yet its absence suggests the most tender part of parenthood: the desperate desire to trade places with a suffering child.
Before the father’s exuberant cry, “Let’s celebrate!,” he likely thought, “Let his shame fall on me!”
Like a parent of an adult child traumatized by sin’s severe and solitary confinement, I have longed to ease the suffering of those who call me Father by taking their place (spiritually) and sharing their space (literally).
Why else would I visit prison cells on a weekly basis? Undertake ascetic disciplines? Implore patron saints of inmates and addicts?
Like a good dad, I’ll outwait the cold shoulder and vacant gaze just to be among the first to say, “Welcome home, kid! Welcome home!”