The 'Mysterious Fruitfulness' of Parenting the Prodigal

Pope Francis, in his two years as pontiff, has often urged people of faith to be better people of faith. To walk the talk. To get with the program. To do as Jesus would do. His example inspires us, just as his writings enlighten us. The pope reminds us that God calls us to love, no matter what. He encourages us to be certain that by entrusting ourselves to God, our acts of love and concern for others will be “mysteriously fruitful” in ways that we may never know. (“The Joy of the Gospel,” Nos. 279–80)

It’s an intriguing thought: mysterious fruitfulness. Teachers understand it, almost instinctively. When you teach, you know that you are touching the future, but you also know that, more than likely, you will not get to see how. Teachers take the leap of faith that somehow, someday, what they do every day in the classroom will bear fruit. And they’re right. Most of us can call to mind a teacher who reached us, or challenged us, or believed in us in a way that made us better people, that formed us into better adults. And that teacher probably has no idea of his or her impact on us.

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As parents, we are sometimes privileged to dispense with the mystery and savor firsthand the fruitfulness of our children. It is a great satisfaction to see our children flourish and find fulfillment as they grow to adulthood. A child’s gratitude for our parenting is a pure pleasure, even if it is only overheard.

Alas, the parenting path is not always so. But the belief in mysterious fruitfulness strengthens us to be the best parents we can be, even in the face of our children’s failure to thrive. I witnessed an example of this one recent morning, on my way into work at a state prison. An old man in a station wagon was holding up the line at the front gate. He was obviously not a state worker, since he was taking so long. Even though the turn-off into the visiting parking lot is clearly marked, it seemed he was in the wrong line. He talked at length with the officer who checks the identification badges of workers before allowing them onto prison grounds. Was the old man lost? I began to feel a little irritated with him, as I’m sure the other employees in line were, especially as we were cutting it awfully close to being on time for work. I noticed the old man had a passenger, an old lady. And I suddenly realized that they were not lost, but rather right on time: they were there to pick up their son, or presumably their son, who would be one of the day’s parolees.

The officer showed them where to turn around to enter the correct parking lot. As the old man drove back by me, I thought I saw the face of a familiar character: the father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. Both parents had come to an institution full of prodigal sons, with outstretched arms and an extra seatbelt to welcome their particular prodigal home.

It occurred to me, as I finally took my turn to show my ID and pass through the gate, that this parental faith in the power of forgiveness, as well as its witness to the world, increases the scope and reach of the mysterious fruitfulness of our earthly lives. God is just such a parent to us. Love always bears fruit, even if its harvest remains a mystery to us. Faith, after all, is mystery itself, which we embrace the moment we answer the call to be fruitful, to love.

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