The parable as St. Luke tells it in chapter 15:11-24
“A certain man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of substance that falleth to me.’ And he divided unto them his substance. And not many days after, the younger son, gathering all together, went abroad into a far country and there wasted his substance, living riotously. And after he had spent all, there came a mighty famine in that country and he began to be in want. And he went and cleaved to one of the citizens of that country. And he sent him into his farm to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks the swine did eat, and no man gave unto him.
And returning to himself he said, ‘How many hired servants in my father’s house abound with bread, and I here perish with hunger? I will arise and will go to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before thee. I am not worthy to be called thy son. Make me as one of thy hired servants.”’ And rising up, he came to his father. And when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion and running to him fell upon his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before thee. I am not worthy to be called thy son. And the father said to his servants,’ Bring forth quickly the finest robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it, and let us eat and make merry because this my son was dead and is come to life again, was lost and is found.”
Composition of Place – Imagine you see a young man who is sad and worried, reddened by the sun, wearing tattered clothes, seated on a rock beneath a holm oak, surrounded by a herd of swine. Pressed by hunger, he takes from the ground some of the husks that these dirty animals have driveled and tread upon, which he eats, as they grunt and stink all around him. He deplores his misfortune, saying: “Oh, what a miserable life this is, as I compare it with what I was!”
Prayer of Petition – My God and Lord, grant me light and grace to understand this parable well, and I beg Thee to grant that, as I imitated the prodigal son in separating myself from Thee, I may now imitate him in returning to ask Thy forgiveness.
In this parable the Father is a reminder of Our Lord. The elder son, so humble, obedient and good, represents a good Christian who keeps God’s law always in every way, and the prodigal son is a very vivid reminder of the sinner.
Youth brings on its own calamities when a young man lets himself be carried away by delusions – by a love for pleasure, for gambling, for going places. He makes companions and friends of those who have his likes and dislikes. He is anxious to see and be seen and to always appear elegantly dressed.
As is the way with young men, he lets himself be drawn by his passions, in particular by impurity. Instead of resisting temptation, he stirs up these passions by the conversations he has with companions and friends. He is always looking for and remaining in occasions of impurity, so that if he did not fall into sin, it would be a greater miracle than that of the three young men who were cast into the fiery furnace in Babylon and walked about in the flames without being burned (Dan. 3:50). But there is a great difference between those three youths and that one. They did not thrust themselves into the furnace, but others cast them in, and because of that God preserved them with a miracle. But the prodigal son voluntarily entered into, and remained in the occasion of sin, and for this reason, he was lost so miserably.
According to the way of young men, he craved independence and wanted to be rid of parental authority, even though it was something suitable and profitable for him. He was even rash and bold enough to ask his father to give him the portion of the inheritance that fell to him. What ingratitude! What bad will!
(1) Self-knowledge – My soul, you have here a picture of what you have done. You have surrendered to pleasure and fun. You have placed yourself into the midst of the fires of passion, and have let yourself become so inflamed that through all your faculties and senses you have spurted forth sparks of impurity so as to scandalize others and inflame them. Your very eyes have appeared full of adultery, as St. Peter says of certain sinners. Your mouth has had the rottenness of an open sepulcher, from which evil words come forth and dirty stories, dirty jokes, evil songs, by which you blacken the pure silver of chastity in everyone who has the misfortune to listen to you. Your actions, your bodily movements, and your clothing and manners reveal what you are. Impurity leads you to desire and to gain an independence from God and from your parents and superiors, so that you become fully a person of loose morals. You have the boldness to ask God, your Father, for what you think is your due according to nature. No, you do not ask for it; you snatch it and abuse your whole patrimony. You abuse your faculties and your senses, all your natural graces, such as health, good looks, wealth, and all the rest – which belong not to you, but to God. For what do you have which you have not received?
(2) Repentance – Alas! What a terrible thing I have done! What ingratitude! What injustice!
The prodigal son, with the patrimony that he received from his father, went away from his homeland and squandered all he had. A great famine came, and he hired himself out to an employer who made him take care of swine. Here in this parable, O Christian, you have a discourse by Christ Himself about what has happened to you. By sin you separated from God your Father. You wasted everything by a discarded life. You found yourself stripped of grace like another Adam and Eve. A great spiritual famine has stricken you. You lack the bread of God’s grace, the Eucharistic Bread, for you do not receive Holy Communion. You lack the nourishment that comes from reading good books and the Word of God. Deprived of these holy foods by which the just man lives, from which you have voluntarily cut yourself off, you are afflicted and hungry. Just as the body cannot live without eating, and if it cannot eat one thing, it will eat something else, so likewise the soul will act. If it is not nourished with virtues, it will feed on vice.
The prodigal son hired himself out to an employer who had him keep swine. And you, O Christian, what have you been doing? Alas! You have hired yourself out – or we will do better to say that you have enslaved yourself – to Satan, who makes you keep the unclean swine of vice and sin, such as pride, covetousness, anger, lust, gluttony, sloth, unbelief, indifference, irreligion, impiety.
All of these vices are keeping you company as the swine were company to the prodigal son. Just as he fed himself with the food of the swine he tended, so you feed on vice. You have an employer so tyrannical and cruel that he does not feed you with a satisfactory diet. He does not provide you with enough to meet your needs, nor does he even permit you to fill your stomach with unclean husks. How often you crave riches which you cannot obtain, or thirst for honors which you cannot acquire, or want to get revenge on someone when you cannot, or you want some delicious food and drink that you cannot get! Perhaps you struggle after some elegant clothes, some indecent fun and amusement, and even get it. But is it a diet that satisfies you? You are always left hungry. What a pitiful state!
With the prodigal son, it was his hunger that led him to comprehend the situation. He said, “I am perishing here with hunger. What, then, shall I do? Ah, I know what I will do. I will arise and go to my father and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you. I am not worthy to be called your son. But at least admit me to be one of your least servants.”
You see, Christian soul, the decision which the prodigal son soon made? You, too, should make such a decision. Do you not now perceive that vice is a diet insufficient for nourishing you? Vices can be engaging and fascinating, but they cannot meet your needs and satisfy you. Remember what you were before. Reflect on what you are, and how things go with those who are serving God faithfully. They go about clothed with the garment of grace, virtue and merit. They feed on the bread of life and understanding, are sustained by a good conscience and by trust in God. They are content, joyful and satisfied. For once, then, decide to arise and go see your Father.
(1) Determination – I do not want to tend the unclean animals of vice, guilt and sin. I do not want to give any further service to such a cruel tyrant as Satan, who, after enslaving me and degrading me, and making me undergo so many miseries, would give me eternal damnation as my reward. I want to go back to my Father. Now I perceive what I have lost. – Alas! My Father! How evil I have been! How heedless! I have offended Thee. Oh, what a wretched thing to do! What an outrageous thing to do! I have done wrong to myself. I have made no progress. I have gained nothing but discredit, displeasure, hardship, and damnation.
(2) Resolution – My Lord and Father, I am resolved to return to Thee. I know well that I am unworthy to be accepted as Thy son. But at least receive as the least of Thy servants. Though I have failed as Thy son because of my foolishness and malice, Thou hast not disowned me. Thou hast always been and are my good Father. Thou wilt forgive me. Yes, my Father, Thou wilt accept me. I know Thy generous, kind heart. Thou wilt pardon me.
The prodigal son set about his undertaking. At once difficulties appeared. He would have to overcome certain human fears. He would have to overlook the things that might be said by people in his home, by his friends, relatives and neighbors. Doubtless he would say to himself: Alas! Everybody will look. Everybody will talk. Everyone will remember what you were before, what you said and did. And now, when they see you this way, what will they say?
But fearlessly he conquers and overcomes everything. He presents himself at his home. His father receives him with all tenderness, love and joy. As for all those obstacles and difficulties which before had appeared overwhelming, he saw them vanish like smoke.
Yes, Christian soul, make up your mind for once. Then carry out that mind. Go, hasten to your Father. Do not be afraid. Do not let Satan deceive you. He will make obstacles appear unconquerable. He will make your conversion appear scarcely less than impossible. He will construct a great barrier by suggesting that God will not pardon such great and numerous sins, that your confessor, who holds God’s place, will not welcome you, that he will gruffly send you away. Satan will tell you that there is no longer any remedy, that you cannot get rid of your evil ways, that it is impossible for you to always stay away from certain fun-seeking, from certain sinful pleasures. Also he will bring before you the things that worldly people say. Put no stock in Satan. See to it that your change is a genuine one. Make a good confession of all your sins, and you will see that all these difficulties vanish like smoke.
The Father confessor will listen to you with all sweetness and charity. He does not show alarm at the numerous and great sins of a penitent. What gives him pain – and very much pain – is if he sees that the sinner comes without the disposition, without the willingness to correct himself. That is what grieves his zealous heart. But if he sees that a sinner comes with a converted and humble heart, then he is unable – nor would he know how – to have contempt for him. Just the opposite is true. He receives the soul with open arms, and from his heart welcomes him. A tenderness and affection rather incline him to tears. He thanks the Lord as he witnesses this great mercy which is showered on the sinner before him. With joy he admires the sinner’s courage and determination in conquering himself and conquering Satan and all human respect. Oh, what gladness he experiences! And what joy the sinner feels when the Father confessor, having heard the confession, gives absolution. In the midst of his sobs of emotion he says these words of St. Augustine: “Those tears that I shed out of sorrow for sin are sweeter than all the delights and pleasures of the theater and worldly amusements.” Oh, what gladness does his heart not experience when he finds himself clothed again in sanctifying grace by means of the sacrament of penance! The greatest joy comes when he sees himself admitted to Holy Communion. Oh, what gladness! It seems to him that the whole Heavenly court comes to make festival in his heart.
(1) Resolution – I am now resolved. I will go to Confession today. I will not delay any longer. I will tell all my sins to the Father confessor. I hope to receive pardon for them all. O my Heavenly Father, how sorry I am for my sins! I will always, always avoid sin, my Father, with the help of Thy Divine Grace.
(2) Prayer of Petition – O Mary, my most loving Mother, Advocate of poor sinners who want to amend. I truly wish to amend my ways. I want to make a good confession of all my sins. By Your holy sorrow obtain for me a great sorrow for my sins. Oh, how grieved I am, my Mother, for having sinned! for having offended my God and Thee! For having again crucified Thy Holy Son, Jesus, by my sins!
O my Jesus, I come to Thee full of sorrow for my sins. I am ashamed and distressed at seeing how I have put Thee on that Cross by my sins. But I am encouraged as I remember that Thou prayed from the Cross for the very ones who crucified Thee. Thy Most Precious Blood does not plead for vengeance like the blood of Abel, but It begs for pity, mercy, pardon. And so, filled with confidence, I pray:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me;
Body of Christ, save me;
Blood of Christ, inebriate me;
Water from the side of Christ, wash me;
Passion of Christ, strengthen me;
O Good Jesus, listen to me;
Within Thy wounds, hide me;
Never let me be parted from Thee;
From the malignant foe, guard me;
At the hour of my death, call me;
and bid me come to Thee
that with Thy saints I may praise Thee forever.
Now pray the Our Father and the Hail Mary
(Source: The Golden Key to Heaven, An Explanation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius by St. Anthony Mary Claret)