As for prayer, so for suffering: the history of the Church is very rich in witnesses who spent themselves for others without reserve, at the cost of harsh suffering. The greater the hope that enlivens us, the greater is the ability within us to suffer for the love of truth and good, joyfully offering up the minor and major daily hardships and inserting them into Christ's great com-passion (cf. ibid., n. 40). May Mary, who, together with that of her Son, had her immaculate Heart pierced by the sword of sorrow, help us on this journey of evangelical perfection. In these very days, while commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Apparitions of Our Lady at Lourdes we are prompted to meditate on the mystery of Mary's sharing in humanity's suffering; at the same time, we are encouraged to draw consolation from the Church's "treasury of compassion" (ibid.) to which she contributed more than any other creature. Therefore, let us begin Lent in spiritual union with Mary who "advanced in her pilgrimage of faith" following her Son (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 58) and always goes before the disciples on the journey towards the light of Easter. Amen!
HOLY MASS, BLESSING AND IMPOSITION OF THE ASHES
HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI
Basilica of St Sabina
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today we begin the liturgical Season of Lent with the evocative rite of the imposition of ashes through which we wish to commit ourselves to converting our hearts to the horizons of Grace. People generally associate this Season with the sadness and dreariness of life. On the contrary, it is a precious gift of God, a strong time full of meaning on the Church’s path, it is the journey that leads to the Passover of the Lord.
The biblical Readings of today’s celebration give us instructions for living this spiritual experience to the full. “Return to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). In the First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Joel we heard these words with which God invites the Jewish people to sincere and unostentatious repentance. This is not a superficial and transitory conversion; but a spiritual itinerary that deeply concerns the attitude of the conscience and implies sincere determination to reform.
The Prophet draws inspiration from the plague of locusts that descended on the people, destroying their crops, to ask them for inner repentance and to rend their hearts rather than their clothing (cf. 2:13).
In other words, it is in practice a question of adopting an attitude of authentic conversion to God — of returning to him — recognizing his holiness, his power, his majesty.
And this conversion is possible because God is rich in mercy and great in love. His is a regenerating mercy that creates within us a pure heart, renews in our depths a firm spirit, restoring the joy of salvation (cf. Psalm 51 :14). God, in fact — as the Prophet says — does not want the sinner to die but to convert and live (cf. Ezekiel 33:11).
The Prophet Joel orders in the Lord’s name the creation of a favourable penitential environment: the trumpet must be blown to convoke the gathering and reawaken consciences. The Lenten Season proposes to us this liturgical and penitential environment: a journey of 40 days in which to experience God’s merciful love effectively.
Today the appeal: “Return to me with all your heart”, resounds for us. Today it is we who are called to convert our hearts to God, in the constant awareness that we cannot achieve conversion on our own, with our own efforts, because it is God who converts us. Furthermore, he offers us his forgiveness, asking us to return to him, to give us a new heart cleansed of the evil that clogs it, to enable us to share in his joy. Our world needs to be converted by God, it needs his forgiveness, his love, it needs a new heart.
“Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). In the Second Reading St Paul offers us another element on our journey of conversion. The Apostle invites us to remove our gaze from him and to pay attention instead to the One who sent him and to the content of the message he bears: “So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We therefore beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (ibid.).
An ambassador repeats what he has heard his Lord say and speaks with the authority and within the limits that he has been given. Anyone who serves in the office of ambassador must not draw attention to himself but must put himself at the service of the message to be transmitted and of the one who has sent it.
This is how St Paul acted in exercising his ministry as a preacher of the word of God and an Apostle of Jesus Christ. He does not shrink from the duty he has received, but carries it out with total dedication, asking us to open ourselves to Grace, to let God convert us. He writes: “Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1).
“Christ’s call to conversion”, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “continues to resound in the lives of Christians... [it] is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church” which, “clasping sinners to her bosom”, and “‘at once holy and always in need of purification... follows constantly the path of penance and renewal”. “This endeavour of conversion is not just a human work. It is the movement of a ‘contrite heart’ (Psalm 51:17), drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first” (n. 1428).
St Paul was speaking to the Christians of Corinth but through them he intended to address all people. Indeed, all people have always needed God’s grace which illuminates minds and hearts. And the Apostle immediately insists “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). All can open themselves to God’s action, to his love; with our evangelical witness we Christians must be a living message; indeed in many cases we are the only Gospel that men and women of today still read.
This is our responsibility, following in St Paul’s footsteps, a further reason for living Lent fully: in order to bear a witness of faith lived to a world in difficulty in need of returning to God, in need of conversion.
“Beware of practising your piety before men in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). In today’s Gospel Jesus reinterprets the three fundamental pious practices prescribed by Mosaic law. Almsgiving, prayer and fasting characterize the Jew who observes the law. In the course of time these prescriptions were corroded by the rust of external formalism or even transformed into a sign of superiority.
In these three practices Jesus highlights a common temptation. Doing a good deed almost instinctively gives rise to the desire to be esteemed and admired for the good action, in other words to gain a reward. And on the one hand this closes us in on ourselves and on the other, it brings us out of ourselves because we live oriented to what others think of us or admire in us.
In proposing these prescriptions anew the Lord Jesus does not ask for formal respect of a law that is alien to the human being, imposed by a severe legislator as a heavy burden, but invites us to rediscover these three pious practices by living them more deeply, not out of self-love but out of love of God, as a means on the journey of conversion to him. Alms-giving, prayer and fasting: these are the path of the divine pedagogy that accompanies us not only in Lent, towards the encounter with the Risen Lord; a course to take without ostentation, in the certainty that the heavenly Father can read and also see into our heart in secret.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us set out confidently and joyfully on the Lenten journey. Forty days separate us from Easter; this “strong” season of the liturgical year is a favourable time which is granted to us so that we may attend more closely to our conversion, listen more intensely to the word of God and intensify our prayer and penance. We thereby open our hearts to docile acceptance of the divine will for a more generous practice of mortification thanks to which we can go more generously to the aid of our needy neighbour: a spiritual journey that prepares us to relive the Paschal Mystery.
May Mary, our guide on the Lenten journey, lead us to ever deeper knowledge of the dead and Risen Christ, help us in the spiritual combat against sin, and sustain us as we pray with conviction: “Converte nos, Deus salutaris noster” — “Convert us to you, O God, our salvation”. Amen!
Acknowledgment: We thank the Vatican Publisher for allowing us to publish the Homilies of Pope Benedict XVI, so that it could be accessed by more people all over the world; as a source of God’s encouragements to all of us.
HOMILY OF POPE FRANCIS
Basilica of Santa Sabina
“Rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13).
With these penetrating words of the Prophet Joel, the liturgy today introduces us into Lent, pointing to conversion of heart as the chief characteristic of this season of grace. The prophetic appeal challenges all of us without exception, and it reminds us that conversion is not to be reduced to outward forms or to vague intentions, but engages and transforms one’s entire existence beginning from the centre of the person, from the conscience. We are invited to embark upon a journey on which, by defying routine, we strive to open our eyes and ears, but especially to open our hearts, in order to go beyond our own “backyard”.
Opening oneself to God and to the brethren. We know that this increasingly artificial world would have us live in a culture of “doing”, of the “useful”, where we exclude God from our horizon without realizing it. But we also exclude the horizon itself! Lent beacons us to “rouse ourselves”, to remind ourselves that we are creatures, simply put, that we are not God. In the little daily scene, as I look at some of the power struggles to occupy spaces, I think: these people are playing God the Creator. They still have not realized that they are not God.
And we also risk closing ourselves off to others and forgetting them. But only when the difficulties and suffering of others confront and question us may we begin our journey of conversion towards Easter. It is an itinerary which involves the Cross and self-denial. Today’s Gospel indicates the elements of this spiritual journey: prayer, fasting and almsgiving (cf. Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18). All three exclude the need for appearances: what counts is not appearances; the value of life does not depend on the approval of others or on success, but on what we have inside us.
The first element is prayer. Prayer is the strength of the Christian and of every person who believes. In the weakness and frailty of our lives, we can turn to God with the confidence of children and enter into communion with him. In the face of so many wounds that hurt us and could harden our hearts, we are called to dive into the sea of prayer, which is the sea of God’s boundless love, to taste his tenderness. Lent is a time of prayer, of more intense prayer, more prolonged, more assiduous, more able to take on the needs of the brethren; intercessory prayer, to intercede before God for the many situations of poverty and suffering.
The second key element of the Lenten journey is fasting. We must be careful not to practice a formal fast, or one which in truth “satisfies” us because it makes us feel good about ourselves. Fasting makes sense if it questions our security, and if it also leads to some benefit for others, if it helps us to cultivate the style of the Good Samaritan, who bends down to his brother in need and takes care of him. Fasting involves choosing a sober lifestyle; a way of life that does not waste, a way of life that does not “throw away”. Fasting helps us to attune our hearts to the essential and to sharing. It is a sign of awareness and responsibility in the face of injustice, abuse, especially to the poor and the little ones, and it is a sign of the trust we place in God and in his providence.
The third element is almsgiving: it points to giving freely, for in almsgiving one gives something to someone from whom one does not expect to receive anything in return. Gratuitousness should be one of the characteristics of the Christian, who aware of having received everything from God gratuitously, that is, without any merit of his own, learns to give to others freely. Today gratuitousness is often not part of daily life where everything is bought and sold. Everything is calculated and measured. Almsgiving helps us to experience giving freely, which leads to freedom from the obsession of possessing, from the fear of losing what we have, from the sadness of one who does not wish to share his wealth with others.
With its invitations to conversion, Lent comes providentially to awaken us, to rouse us from torpor, from the risk of moving forward by inertia. The exhortation which the Lord addresses to us through the prophet Joel is strong and clear: “Return to me with all your heart” (Joell 2:12). Why must we return to God? Because something is not right in us, not right in society, in the Church and we need to change, to give it a new direction. And this is called needing to convert! Once again Lent comes to make its prophetic appeal, to remind us that it is possible to create something new within ourselves and around us, simply because God is faithful, always faithful, for he cannot deny himself, he continues to be rich in goodness and mercy, and he is always ready to forgive and start afresh. With this filial confidence, let us set out on the journey!
Saint Peter's Square
Dear Brothers and Sisters, Good morning,
Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the Lenten journey of 40 days, which will lead us to the Easter Triduum, the memorial of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection and the heart of the mystery of our salvation. Lent prepares us for this most important moment; therefore, it is a “powerful” season, a turning point that can foster change and conversion in each of us. We all need to improve, to change for the better. Lent helps us and thus we leave behind old habits and the lazy addiction to the evil that deceives and ensnares us. During the season of Lent, the Church issues two important invitations: to have a greater awareness of the redemptive work of Christ; and to live out one’s Baptism with deeper commitment.
Awareness of the marvels that the Lord has wrought for our salvation disposes our minds and hearts to an attitude of thanksgiving to God for all that he has given us, for all that he has accomplished for the good of his People and for the whole of humanity. This marks the beginning of our conversion: it is the grateful response to the stupendous mystery of God’s love. When we see the love that God has for us, we feel the desire to draw close to him: this is conversion.
Living our Baptism to the full — the second invitation — also means not accustoming ourselves to the situations of degradation and misery that we encounter as we walk along the streets of our cities and towns. There is a risk of passively accepting certain forms of behaviour and of not being shocked by the sad reality surrounding us. We become accustomed to violence, as though it were a predictable part of the daily news. We become accustomed to brothers and sisters sleeping on the streets, who have no roof to shelter them. We become accustomed to refugees seeking freedom and dignity, who are not received as they ought to be. We become accustomed to living in a society which thinks it can do without God, in which parents no longer teach their children to pray or to make the sign of the Cross. I ask you: do your children, do your little ones know how to make the sign of the Cross? Think about it. Do your grandchildren know how to make the sign of the Cross? Have you taught them? Think about it and respond in your heart. Do they know how to pray the “Our Father”? Do they know how to pray to Our Lady with the “Hail Mary”? Think about it and respond within yourselves. Growing accustomed to un-Christian and convenient behaviour narcotises the heart!
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16 March 2014