September 15, 2019
24th Sunday – C
One of the most notorious criminals in the first half of the 20th century was a man by the name of Al Capone. Al Capone was the head of organized crime in Chicago, especially in the 1920’s and shortly thereafter. He made between 50 to 100 million dollars by illegal means and was responsible in some way for the death of at least 50 people. He was indicted for many crimes, but he was finally convicted of income tax evasion in 1932 and sent to the federal prison known as Alcatraz. Yet Al Capone’s parents, especially his mother, were devout Catholics from Italy, and Al Capone married a young Irish woman, and she was a devout Catholic. Most likely, they prayed for Al Capone. We do know that while he was in prison in the 1930’s, Al Capone returned to the practice of his Catholic faith and was instrumental in starting a Catholic chapel at Alcatraz. He was released early from prison due to bad health. He died in 1947 at age 48. The Archdiocese of Chicago did not allow a public Catholic funeral for him, but a Catholic Monsignor presided at the graveside services. Al Capone was buried in a Catholic cemetery. The priest involved said that Al Capone had repented of his sins and had received the last rites of the Catholic Church, and so he was deserving of a Catholic burial. Our readings today speak of the mercy of God to sinners. Jesus had the mission of seeking out the lost, and the Church continues this mission. Also, we, as followers of Jesus, are to be merciful in our dealings with others.
Jesus stressed in his teaching and in his actions that his heavenly Father was a God of mercy. Already in the Old Testament, as we hear in the first reading from the Book of Exodus, God showed mercy to his people. While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments and spending time with God, the Israelites down below were worshipping a golden calf and acting in sinful ways. God threatened to kill them, but Moses interceded on their behalf, and we are told that the Lord “relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.” It is a pattern in the Old Testament that again and again the Israelite people sinned, but the Lord forgave them and allowed them to make a new start. Jesus said that his mission was to seek out the lost sheep of Israel. Tax collectors and sinners drew near to listen to Jesus, but religious Jews, such as the scribes and the Pharisees, criticized him for this, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus has three parables about the mercy of God. God is like a shepherd with 100 sheep who loses one of them. The shepherd goes out to find the lost sheep, and returns home with it. The shepherd calls together his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. Jesus says that in the same way God rejoices more over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who have no need of repentance. In a similar way, God is like a woman who loses one of her ten coins and sweeps the house to find it. When she finds it, she calls in her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. Jesus goes on to say that there will be rejoicing with the angels over one sinner who repents. Finally, we have the long but familiar parable of a father with two sons, often called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” The parable really stresses the love and mercy of the father, who welcomes back his son who had wandered off. When the older son complains about the mercy of the father, the father says to him, “We must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” So, God seeks out the sinner and rejoices when the sinner returns to union with God.
The Church is to continue the mission of Jesus, that is, the Church is to seek out the lost and to rejoice in the conversion of sinners. In the early Church, the mission of the Church began to include Gentiles as well as Jews. St. Paul had been a persecutor of the Church, but he was converted and began to preach to others. St. Paul in our second reading today says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost.” Through the centuries the Gospel had been preached throughout the whole world, and it is possible for sinners to be reconciled to God. We are not to rule out any groups or individuals as unworthy. In Hawaii in the late 19th century people with leprosy, that is, Hansen’s Disease, were separated from society and put on a special island. St. Damian of Molocai, a Catholic priest from Belgium, went to this island to minister to them. He invited in Franciscan sisters from Syracuse, New York to provide health care and other services. The sisters were led by Saint Marianne Cope. The First Letter of Timothy, Chapter 2, verse 4, tells us that God wills that everyone be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. We are to seek the salvation of all.
Lastly, we are to be merciful ourselves in our dealings with others. We are to be concerned about the needs of others. This past week I was involved in my high school class reunion (our 60th anniversary). One member of our class went to college at North Dakota State University and became a music teacher. After three years of teaching, he was drafted by the army. This was during the Vietnam War era. The medical doctor who did the physical exam for my classmate noticed that his blood pressure was somewhat high. The doctor asked what my classmate did for living, and when the doctor learned that my classmate was a music teacher, the doctor told him to go back teaching. We are to show concern for others in whatever way we can.
Today, we once again rejoice and give thanks that God is a God of mercy who forgives our sins and allows to make a new beginning. We ask for the help we need to be involved in the Church’s mission of seeking out the lost and bringing them to God. We also pray that we will be merciful in our dealings with us in the hope that Jesus will be merciful to us both now and in the world to come.