What if the Prodigal Son Had No Father to Return to?

What if the Prodigal Son Had No Father to Return to? s

The United Nations Report on the Holy See turned a blind eye to a peril that threatens our young. It’s the elephant in the house, or rather, the absence of one.

For as long as I’ve been able to read, I have been fascinated with the evolution of language and the origins of words. This field of study in linguistics is called “etymology.” It sounds like, and is sometimes confused with, “entomology,” which is the branch of zoology that studies insects. Come to think of it, I’ve been wondering about the etymology of entomology. It’s been bugging me for years!

Too Nerdy? Sorry about that. I sometimes think I must drive other prisoners mad when they ask me the meaning of a word, and I provide its entire history from its Latin root to its current use in the English lexicon. Our friend, Pornchai-Maximilian Moontri recently asked me about the difference between the words, “prodigy” and “prodigal.” The question arose when I wrote about the well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son from the Gospel of Saint Luke (15:11-32) in “Pope Francis Has a Challenge for the Prodigal Son’s Older Brother.”

Prodigy and prodigal are often confused. They both come from Latin, but both the original Latin and the contemporary English have vastly different meanings. The word, “Prodigy,” from the Latin, “prodigium,” means “portent” in the sense that it refers to a marvelous example of something. The Latin root of the word, “prodigious” is related to it. In English, a prodigy refers to someone gifted with exceptional qualities.

“Prodigal,” on the other hand, has almost the opposite connotation. It comes from the Latin “prodigus,” rendered in later medieval Latin as “prodigalis,” and it means “lavish.” Its use in English refers to someone reckless and wasteful. However, “prodigal” has long been associated with the younger, errant son in the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son. We therefore often interpret it to mean someone who has returned from the error of his ways. It’s a development in the etymology of the word that has been influenced entirely by how we apply that parable.

The story lends itself to that meaning because the younger son’s return, and the older son’s disdain for his father’s embrace of him, are central events of the parable. The key to the parable, however, is the father’s reaction at the return of his prodigal son, and his challenge to his older son – who never left, who was always faithful – to share, or at least to see, the father’s joy in the restoration of his son who was lost.

The parable is one of the most memorable in all of Scripture because our tradition has always recognized the crucial importance of fatherhood. If you remove the father from the parable, it becomes a tale of two brothers, one utterly rejecting the other. Removal of the father is to remove all hope for restoration and justice. It is the father’s joy at the return of his errant son that is the parable’s central image.


Almost two years ago on These Stone Walls, I wrote a post that seemed to touch the raw nerve of what is fast becoming an endangered species in Western Culture: committed and involved fathers. That post, which took off like a rocket in the on-line world, was “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men.”

It was our most shared, re-posted, tweeted, and linked TSW post. I was surprised one day recently when a friend looked it up and saw that it has been shared thus far almost 1,200 times on Facebook, and has been linked-to and republished hundreds of times. I’m not sure whether its attraction was elephants or fathers, but I think the latter.

For me, the most moving among hundreds of comments in various places on that post was also the most recent. A link to it appeared in February 2014, almost two years after I wrote it, in a post entitled “Operation No More Tears, Part 2” at the website of Saint Patrick Presbyterian Church in Collierville, TN. Senior Minister, The Reverend Jim Holland, wrote:

“[I was] recently sent…a great blog post. It was remarkable, actually. The post, written by Catholic priest Gordon MacRae, is called “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men.” While the essay is profound, the man who wrote the blog is what interests me; he is even more profound.”

I don’t see or understand that last part at all. I don’t feel very profound. Reverend Jim Holland went on to describe for his readers the circumstances of my imprisonment, and concluded:

“So he writes, he blesses, and witnesses to the grace of God in a prison. How? How do you bless people when your life is a testimony of a profound wrong? How do you witness to grace when your life is based on an injustice? . . . All I can say is this: the message of hope in the Bible is so profound and real that it actually works into our lives in the here and now. You ask, ‘How could that be?’ Good question. This Sunday, we’ll talk about it.”

I’ve asked a friend to send me a printed copy of Reverend Jim Holland’s sermon from that following Sunday. I was very touched by his words, and cannot help but wonder why I haven’t seen anything like them on the websites of Catholic priests and parishes. I hear personally in prison from a growing number of other priests, and I am both moved and grateful for that, but more and more I fear that we as a Church have taken on the demeanor of the Prodigal Son’s older brother, and many among our bishops and priests have cast off some of the central tenets of fatherhood: mercy and restorative justice.

Within the priesthood, and especially within the leadership of our shepherds, joy at the errant son’s return seems to have become tempered by a fear of being somehow tarnished by him. It’s a point I tried to make with clarity in “Our Catholic Tabloid Frenzy About Fallen Priests.” As fatherhood is sacrificed on the altar of political correctness in Western Culture, it has never before been more urgently needed in the relationships between bishops and their priests, and between priests and their people. And without a doubt, it has never before been more urgently needed in the relationships between fathers and their sons.


When I wrote “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men,” I was irked by some folks in the Catholic reform movement, Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) which since then seems to have virtually disappeared from the landscape of the Church. VOTF spent a decade using a painful scandal in the Catholic Church to clamor for a dissenting theological and social agenda under the guise of “survivor support.” I know many sexual abuse survivors. You heard from one here on TSW two weeks ago in “I Come to the Catholic Church for Healing and Hope.” As a survivor, a real one, Pornchai-Maximilian has not found support in VOTF’s relentless dissent. To use the fall of some of their very sons and brothers in the priesthood to further their own cause is for me the most vivid example of what it means to mimic the Prodigal Son’s older brother.

VOTF is not at all alone in this. In the following excerpt from “In the Absence of Fathers,” you may simply substitute “Voice of the Faithful” with the United Nations, or any number of groups using a crisis in the Catholic Church as leverage to stifle the Church’s moral voice in the public square:

“But for me, the most mindless politics of all are those of groups like Voice of the Faithful, obsessed with the ‘survivors’ of priestly misconduct – both real and feigned – from 30, 40, or 50 years ago. But they have absolutely nothing to say about the thousands of young men dumped annually into prison systems from which they emerge with little hope of ever recovering from what they encounter there. How can anyone claim to protect young people while ignoring that?”

Some of the Catholic websites that republished “In the Absence of Fathers” edited out that paragraph, and I found that to be sad for it overlooked an inconvenient truth. America’s great social experiment in radical feminist redesign of the family unit has led Western Culture into the demise of fatherhood, marriage, family, and the role of committed men in the raising of the young. The people most paying the price for this are the very young in the here and now that the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child has turned a blind eye to while scoring headlines at Catholic Church expense for claims from a half century ago.

The evidence is staggering that those who have most visibly succumbed to the effect of the absence of fathers have been simply cast into prisons by the thousands, and as such, they have no voice. They have become invisible. How can anyone claim to want to protect the young while ignoring this? Has even one of the clueless social reconstructionists pointing at the Catholic Church from the safe confines of U.N. bureaucracy ever spent a single day inside an American prison? Here is what they would find there: thousands of young men spending their twenties in prison because they spent their teens in homes without fathers.


My friend, Jesse Pickard, is one of them. For months, Jesse stood at the window in his prison cell watching me, Pornchai-Maximilian, Mike Ciresi, Michael Martinez walking together across the walled prison yard toward early Sunday morning Mass. One day last month, Jesse approached me in the prison yard and asked where we go every Sunday. I explained, and he said, “I’ve never been in the prison chapel.” I said it’s a lot like going into any other church, and Jesse said, “I’ve never been in a church.” I asked him if he would like to go with us, and he said he would think about it.

A week later, Jesse passed me a note as he was walking by me. Such things are forbidden here because prison officials usually see any communication between prisoners as something plotting and nefarious. What Jesse was plotting, however, was to get up the courage to go to Mass. In his note he wrote: “Father G, I really want to go but I feel so awkward. I don’t know what to do.” We can’t stop to talk much here so I wrote back my own illegal note plotting some subversive prison activity. I wrote: “You can sit between me and Pornchai and just do what we do.” Jesse has been there every week since.

From age 10 to 12, Jesse and his father were homeless. They spent two years living in Florida in his father’s van when State officials stepped in and removed Jesse to a series of group homes and foster homes which Jesse finally outgrew when he turned 18. He headed north alone in search of some family. On his way north, Jesse followed some of his fatherless and aimless peers into prison.

Jesse calls me “Father” in every note, conversation, and brief exchange and I can’t get him to stop saying it. “There are no titles in prison,” I tried to explain, but it was Pornchai-Maximilian who set me straight. “You’re missing the point,” Pornchai said. “Jesse hasn’t used that word in a long time, and you shouldn’t stop him!”

Well, as is said in New England since times of old, “Light finally dawns on Marblehead!” The Parable of the Prodigal Son is stripped barren, meaningless and empty, if prodigal sons everywhere have no fathers to return to. That’s why our families are floundering and our prisons are flourishing, and it’s a crime against humanity.

Editor’s Note: Below is a sketch of Father Gordon MacRae created by Jesse Pickard after Mass in the prison a few weeks ago.



thermometerEditors’s Note: a continued thanks to TSW readers for their generosity in responding to Ryan MacDonald’s appeal to help with the legal costs, at the Federal level. We haven’t reached our goal yet, so please share this link to Ryan’s news alert post!

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE


  1. Mary Jean Diemer says:

    Hi Father Gordon!
    What struck me about this post is that biological doesn’t mean your father.
    Sometimes there is a series of “fathers” in your life that guide you at any given point in your life. This is how I see mine and interestingly all of the “fathers” in my life are priests! You are clearly father to this young man and in his so very talented drawing he has captured the love and compassion in your eyes that drew him in to faith.
    God bless you all and I pray for God to watch over you all each day.
    You are loved by us all out here, Jeannie

  2. Domingo says:

    Father G, now I understand the real meaning of the word ‘prodigal’. There is difference between knowing and understanding (would be interested to know the etymology-lexicon thingy between these 2). I thought I knew what ‘prodigal’ meant but I understood it only NOW after reading your post. We have a prodigy in Jesse and I hope that his current state of affairs will not prodigally waste it.

    In terms of our Father’s grace, aren’t many of us prodigal children?

    Thank you for shedding light on that one.

    Asking for your priestly blessings on me and my family,

  3. Mary Fran says:

    I’m not responding to this post particularly, except for Jesse’s drawing. It is very well done. I have a daughter who paints dog portraits on commission. She would be proud to be able to draw people as well as Jesse does. Tell him to keep drawing. It takes talent, which he obviously has. But, it also takes hours of work. Which, again, he has obviously done.

    As to you, Fr. Gordon, I am trying to write a proper letter to you, but it’s so difficult. I’m 4 years behind in your story, slowly catching up. Much of what you write is painful to read. I have been carrying you around in my heart for weeks.

    At the Stations of the Cross this week, I stopped long at the one where Jesus met his mother. And thought of you and your mother. Of the pain she felt seeing you in prison, falsely accused and in pain. And your pain in seeing your mother in pain. A vicious cycle. So much like Jesus and his mother.

    Yesterday our parish had a day of adoration. At the Benediction which ended the day, I thought of how much you would have liked to be there and I started crying. The worst depravation that I can think of for a Catholic, especially a priest, is being deprived of the Blessed Sacrament. And so many who could and should take advantage of the opportunity, don’t. Out of the over 1000 people in our parish, only 25 saw fit to come to Benediction.

    I pray for you every day and offer my Masses and communions for you. I think of you and think of the blood of the Martyrs. Not until the Day of Judgement will you see all the graces your martyrdom has pulled down upon earth.

    • Domingo says:

      Here is the 4th Station of the Cross from a mystic as Jesus has dictated to her:

      † † †

      We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You
      because, by Your holy cross,
      You have redeemed the world.

      Continue with Me for a few moments,
      and a few steps ahead you will see Me
      in the presence of My Holy Mother.
      Her Heart pierced by pain.
      She comes out to meet Me for two reasons.
      One is to give Herself more strength to suffer
      at the sight of Her Son and God.
      And with Her heroic attitude,
      it gives Her Son encouragement to continue
      His work of Redemption.

      Consider the martyrdom of these two Hearts.
      What My Mother loves the most is Her Son…
      She cannot ease My pain
      and She knows that Her visit
      will make My sufferings much worse.

      However, Her presence will increase My strength
      to fulfill the Will of the Father.
      My Mother is My most beloved being on earth,
      and I know I cannot console Her.
      The sad state in which She sees Me
      causes Her heart a suffering as deep as Mine.
      She allows a sob to escape.
      She receives in Her heart
      the death that I am suffering in My body.

      O, how Her eyes are fixed on Me and Mine on Her!
      We do not utter a single word,
      but Our Hearts say many things in this painful gaze.

      Jesus, most obedient,
      meek and humble of heart,
      have mercy on us.
      † † †

  4. Bea says:

    I am deeply touched by this post, Father Gordon. What profound message!
    Wonderful drawing by Jesse! I hope that prison grants him some space (and peace) for his creativity.

  5. Frank Dias says:

    Fr. Gordon, this past week i was at Army Base visiting my nephew. on sunday decided to attend Base Church and it was nearly full of Soldiers and wives and many, many children: Probably more children than adults. All behaving so nicely, really. I was so full of Hope. There i was able to see true Catholic families with 3 to 7 kids and Fathers present to nearly all children.. The church has lots of work still for the fatherless children but with saintly Priests like you they will have great fathers too.

  6. Fr. Stuart MacDonald says:

    Dear Father Gordon,

    WOW! Just wow! Yours is martyr’s blood that is spreading the seeds of faith. Did you ever imagine that the Lord would ask you to carry such a heavy cross? I don’t know how you do it. Of course, it’s not you: it’s the Lord. But what marvels he is working through you. Thank you for your perseverance and fidelity.

    I have printed a copy of Jesse’s line drawing of you and put it on my wall. You are frequently in my prayers. As of today, your name will be before the throne of grace every day with my poor efforts.

    in Xto,
    Fr. Stuart MacDonald

  7. Tom says:

    As always, a fine post and a great insight on the timeless story of the prodigal son…which might be more aptly re-titled “the understanding and forgiving father”.

  8. M says:

    Father G
    Your suffering has been bought about by the sin that abounds in this world and like our blessed Saviour you have been forced to carry a very heavy cross but your priesthood radiates through prison bars and your :parish continues to grow

    “Blesses are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”

    God knows me and calls me by my name.…
    God has created me to do Him some definite service;
    He has committed some work to me
    which He has not committed to another.
    I have my mission—I never may know it in this life,
    but I shall be told it in the next.

    Somehow I am necessary for His purposes…
    I have a part in this great work;
    I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection
    between persons.
    He has not created me for naught. I shall do good,
    I shall do His work;
    I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth
    in my own place, while not intending it,
    if I do but keep His commandments
    and serve Him in my calling.

    Therefore I will trust Him.
    Whatever, wherever I am,
    I can never be thrown away.
    If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him;
    In perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him;
    If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.
    My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be
    necessary causes of some great end,
    which is quite beyond us.
    He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life,
    He may shorten it;
    He knows what He is about.
    He may take away my friends,
    He may throw me among strangers,
    He may make me feel desolate,
    make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—
    still He knows what He is about.…
    Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see—
    I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used.

    Written by Cardinal John Henry Newmann

  9. Bernadette McK says:

    I was going to start by writing ‘Wow!’ too but Liz beat me to it! What amazing talent Jesse shows in his drawing – I do hope he is encouraged to pursue his gift.

    It is wonderful that he has started attending Mass with yourself and Pornchai-Maximilian. As a convert I can appreciate his difficulty in getting up enough courage to go to your chapel. I still remember how I felt when I first knocked on a presbytery door over 50 years ago now and asked to speak to a Priest. He later told me that it had taken a long time for him to ‘thaw me out’ I had been so petrified.

    I do wish Jesse all the best and hope that one day with your help he will find it the most natural thing in the world to enter your chapel and put his trust in God. And I can understand how it must be comforting for him to address you as ‘Father’. May God continue to bless you Father and may you continue to help all those troubled souls around you.

  10. Liz says:

    Wow. Jesse is SO talented. You know for so long we had no idea what you looked like, Fr. Gordon. We love seeing Jesse’s drawing of you. I can’t get over what a fantastic artist he is. How neat that he is coming to mass with you.

    We will pray especially for Jesse in our rosary today (along with the others you mentioned in the piece.)

    The note-passing was my favorite part of this whole post!

    On a more serious note the decline of the family and the children growing up without fathers is very sobering. There is so much suffering as a result of this. Prayers for that as well.

    God bless Jesse and all of you!

  11. Keith says:

    G., once more you have made the Bible a living Word. I see that also in the Pope, but alas until the structures of the Church and Society also have the “Wisdom” to know this foundational truth we walk in a “Cloud of Unknowing”.
    That said, let me give you an example or two: when a priest is laicized he is theoretically “restored to the lay-state” but as one reads the document of laicization one discovers that he CANNOT distribute Holy Communion, read the Readings of the Mass, or have any part in catechesis within the Church; and from “older brothers” (pastors in good-standing within the structure of the Church) sing in the choir, run for Parish Council (even when nominated by “another” lay person) — one SUSPENDED priest was even told by his pastor that he could only be in the church building on SUNDAY mornings (oh, and that “it has noted the absence of his using the envelopes provided when he joined the parish”).
    Oh, well there is much to pray for during this time of re-formation (Lent)!

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