Advent Recollection at St. Luke Church

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In preparation for the Year of Mercy and the birth of Christ, Catholics from around the diocese set aside a Saturday morning for prayer and penance at "Sons and Daughters of the Merciful Father: Advent Morning of Recollection," hosted by the family life office. Some 90 people gathered to attend Mass, pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet in front of the Blessed Sacrament and listen to Msgr. Robert Panke from the Archdiocese of Washington speak at St. Luke Church in McLean Dec. 5.

Though Advent in and of itself is a special time of spiritual preparation, the Year of Mercy, which began Dec. 8, invites even more opportunities for spiritual reflection. In his meditation, Msgr. Panke encouraged everyone to extend mercy in the Christmas season. We should welcome those who perhaps haven't been to church since last Christmas, said Msgr. Panke. "This is the Father's house, and that seat is reserved for your brother and sister who have been away. You should be sitting in the back, letting them come up and be embraced by the Father," he said.

The tremendous mercy of God can be seen clearly in the parable of the prodigal son, said Msgr. Panke. Some people, like the prodigal son, have had times in their lives when they completely rejected God before finding their way home again. But whether we gamble away all our inheritance or simply struggle to practice kindness and charity, all of us are the prodigal son, said Msgr. Panke. "But we are also all called to be the father," showing mercy and encouraging other to do the same, he said.

Jeanette Preniczky, a parishioner of Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington, experienced the powerful effects of mercy when she attended a Project Rachel retreat, a post-abortive healing ministry for men and women. "Literally I felt reborn. I felt so holy and so beloved," she said. Like the prodigal son, she said, men and women who have had abortions experience great shame, but God still welcomes them home with open arms. Msgr. Panke's talk reminded her of the importance of telling people about God's mercy, especially post-abortive men and women. "We receive that mercy and we're called to bring that mercy," she said. "People really need it."

For many, coming back to the church or to confession can be scary, because they don't know the love of the Father, said Msgr. Panke. But from experience, he knows that priests (and God) long for the man or woman who has been away from confession for decades. "We're not thinking 'Where the heck have you been?' In every priest's heart that has the heart of the Father (our reaction is) rejoicing," he said.

Msgr. Panke, who serves as rector of St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, spoke of the importance of deeply imparting into the heart of every seminarian the knowledge that they are a beloved son of God. That identity as a beloved son changes everything, he said. In the parable, the younger son does not think the father's love is enough for him, and sets out to establish his own identity. In a similarly misguided way, the older son tries to earn the father's love. "The merit comes from Jesus," said Msgr. Panke. "We receive the gift (of mercy), so we better give the gift back."

As a convert, Liz Schiavone, president of the Arlington Diocese Council of Catholic Women, appreciated Msgr. Panke's message of mercy and welcome. Schiavonne was raised Christian but married a Catholic and promised to raise her children in the Catholic faith. After five years of attending Mass, she converted. Still she understands how hard it is to leave the faith of one's parents, and she tries each year to welcome the newly confirmed at the Easter vigil Mass. Whether those new to the faith or those who fill the sanctuary on Christmas morning, "we should welcome them, rejoice and be happy that they're there," she said.

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015