Sunday, September 12, 2004

Three Steps to Lasting Change

Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal Son"

(Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 12, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read 1 Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1-32.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-Fourth Sunday 2004]

Today’s second reading and Gospel are about change—positive change: positive change in the life of St. Paul, positive change in the life of the so-called “prodigal son.”

There are 3 steps to achieving positive—and lasting—change in our lives (what the Bible calls “metanoia” or “conversion”). The first step is to recognize the fact that change is necessary. We must admit that we need to change. Sound simple? Not always. Consider St. Paul. In today’s second reading from 1 Timothy 1, Paul talks about his conversion to the Christian faith—which was obviously a major “change” in his life. He begins by saying, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant.”

Now I seriously doubt that Paul would have admitted that truth about himself in the days when he was dragging Christians out of their homes and throwing them into prison. In his arrogance, he would have said that he was a righteous man who had nothing to change. And then he would have arrested you!

When he was partying with his father’s money, the prodigal son would almost certainly have laughed in your face if you had told him that he needed to change and straighten out his life.

But he did need to change! And so did Paul. And so do we! Obviously, if we’ve committed serious sins, then we need to change in some major ways; but all of us have little sins and little imperfections that God wants us to deal with and overcome—so this message applies to everyone, not only to those in mortal sin!

By the way, if you’re ever having trouble with this step and for some reason can’t see your own need to change, there’s a very quick and easy solution to that difficulty: if you’re a married man, ask your wife—she’ll be more than happy to tell you what you need to change! If you’re a wife, ask your husband. If you’re a teenager, ask your parents—they’ll probably give you a list that will go to the floor! Or ask your siblings. Or even ask your friends. If they’re good friends, they won’t tell you you’re perfect. They’ll be honest with you, and tell you the truth in a loving way.

Once you recognize the need for change, then you can move on to step 2, which is: Make the change! This also can be a challenge at times. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard this line in my 18 years of priesthood: “Father, I know I have to stop doing this, but it’s so hard to give it up.” To know you need to change is one thing; to actually make the change is something else entirely.

For the prodigal son, making the change meant he had to swallow his pride and humbly go back to his father—and that was not easy!

For Paul, making the change meant that he had to admit that he had been all wrong about Christianity; it meant that he had to face his sin square in the face: his sin of being an accomplice in the murder of St. Stephen, his sin of tearing apart innocent families!

Do you think that was easy for Paul? If you do, think again!

This is where we can thank God for certain sufferings that we experience, because sometimes those sufferings motivate us to change! I’m sure that Paul thanked God many times for knocking him to the ground on the road to Damascus, because that suffering—that sore posterior—motivated him to make the changes he needed to make in his life: changes he never would have otherwise made.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the prodigal son eventually went back to the pigsty to say thank you to Porky Pig and his friends for waking him up and motivating him to admit his sin and go back to his father.

Sometimes we may need help in making the changes we need to make. We should not be afraid to ask for that help. God often works through other people in the Body of Christ. If you read the Book of Acts, you see that Paul needed the help of Ananias and many other Christians after his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road. Ananias baptized him and helped him regain his sight; others helped him to get firmly rooted in the Church.

This, by the way, is one reason why we take our young people to the Steubenville youth conference every year. That’s a place where they have the opportunity to recognize their need to change; and they also have the opportunity on that retreat to make changes with the help of others in the Body of Christ.

Which brings us to the final step: Staying changed! As difficult as the others are, this might just be the most challenging step of all. The teenagers who come to Steubenville every year know this as well as anyone. With all the great talks they hear on the weekend, it’s relatively easy for them to recognize their need to change; with the powerful Saturday night experience at adoration—and with the many opportunities they have to go to Confession—it’s pretty easy to let God in so that they can make (or at least begin to make) some much-needed changes in their lives. But then the retreat is over and they come back to Westerly. Can they stay changed?
That’s the real question.

Can the reformed alcoholic stay sober? Can the reformed drug addict stay clean? Can the reformed womanizer stay pure and faithful to his wife? Can the reformed gossiper hold his tongue?

The answer, of course, is Yes!—but it’s not magic!

To stay changed you need to take prayer and the sacraments seriously (especially the Eucharist and Confession). To stay changed you need support—the support of others who are also trying to live their faith and stay changed. Paul had Peter, James, John and the other apostles. The prodigal son had his family at home. Whom do you have? To stay changed you also need a good dose of common sense! You need to avoid bad influences—unhealthy friendships and situations; and you need to expose yourself to good influences (good people, good music, good reading, etc.).

Change is ultimately the work of God’s grace, but we must allow that grace to work within us. St. Paul allowed it to work in him in an awesome way: on the road to Damascus, he faced his need to change; in the days that followed, he actually did change; and—praise God—he stayed that way until the moment he left this earth.

St. Paul, please pray for us now and always, that we will follow your example and experience positive, lasting change in our lives.