Reflecting on Father’s Day, it strikes me that the parable of the prodigal son is a beautiful expression of fatherhood. It could be the theme of a family liturgy of love and reconciliation.
That is exactly what the late Primitivo Romero, a layman who worked in Hispanic ministry in Phoenix, did with his family one weekend a year. He called it a family retreat, to reconcile hurts and misunderstandings and to renew their unity and common purpose.
A great idea, but it presupposes both geographical and social proximity. In many families, there is a gulf in both respects. My wife’s cousin Beverly, 92 years old, laments that one of her children broke all connections with her and has not visited for years. She asks herself what could have caused the rupture and has no answer. Judging from my own family’s experience that seems to be common.
The parable of the prodigal son suggests that the welcome flag should always be flying, just in case. But perhaps we should also count our blessings; the corollary is worse: the offspring, usually a full-grown son, who refuses to leave home.
Recently, in a court in Syracuse, New York, the parents of 30-year-old Michael Rotondo asked the judge to evict him, testifying that he does not work and does not contribute to the family. Rotondo, in his defense, said he needed six months’ notice, but the judge sided with his parents.
Then there is the son or daughter who keeps coming back every time something goes wrong. In every large family, it seems that there is one son like that. In ours it was one teaching at a university, who kept returning “to live with the folks,” the last time when he lost his job because of alcoholism. Mom and Dad were very patient, receiving him, wife and four children with a sigh of resignation. But their patience finally ran out:
“Son, we are tired of you,” Mom told him. “Get out.”
My brother found himself in a similar situation when, retiring in his early 80s after his wife died and after serving four decades as a permanent deacon, most of that time in full-time ministry, he found that his small pension could not support him and a 50-year-old son still living at home, unemployed. So he gathered $5,000 to give him a start and showed him the door.
My brother was a brilliant chemist, reaching the rank of full professor in just seven years at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He gave it all up for the ministry. One son is a lawyer, practicing in the Washington, D.C., area, and his daughter, with degrees from Harvard and Princeton, directs the women’s center at the latter.
The other son, a strapping six-footer, college graduate and in good health, is another matter. His ambition was to become a writer but the four books he self-published do not return enough royalties to support him.
After leaving he worked at a Buddhist monastery in Arizona. But Dad was not out of the woods yet. Two years later he received an urgent message from Indonesia, where his son had gone to help a friend from New York to start a business. He had been fined $1,000 for overstaying his visa and if he could not come up with it, he was going to jail. He needed $3,000 to pay the fine and buy passage home. My brother scraped up $1,500 and a brother contributed the rest. The saga continues.
Fatherhood is the gift that keeps on giving.
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