Wednesday, February 10, 2016

"We Are Far From God" – For Jubilee's Lent, Pope Talks "Doors"... and "Traps"

While the Papal Mass of Ash Wednesday is always held in the evening, amid the context of this Holy Year of Mercy, its 2016 edition featured some unique aspects.

First, as opposed to the traditional Lenten station-church of Santa Sabina on the Avventine Hill, this year's Mass was moved to St Peter's due to the presence of the Missionaries of Mercy, who were present in Rome from around the world to be commissioned by the Pope for the remainder of the Jubilee.

Numbering some 1,000 priests chosen on the recommendation of their local bishop or religious superior – a palpably small number, given the Catholic world's 4,000-odd dioceses – on returning home the Missionaries will take on a significant amount of preaching and hearing Confessions to underscore this Holy Year's message in their own communities. Beyond the standard mandate, the clerics have notably been granted the blanket faculty to lift the excommunications for several canonical crimes which are normally reserved to the Holy See, including violations of the seal of confession by a priest, the use of physical force against the person of the Pope, and desecration of the Eucharist for occult purposes. (On a related note, while most priests in the English-speaking world have long had the delegation to absolve the automatic penalties associated with direct participation in an abortion – which universal law reserves to the diocesan bishop – Francis caused a bit of a stir in Europe last year by granting the ability to do so to every confessor worldwide until the Jubilee's November close.)

To highlight the centrality of sacramental Reconciliation to the Missionaries' task – and this Holy Year all told – tonight's liturgy was the centerpiece event for the weeklong presence in Rome of the glass caskets containing the remains of Padre Pio, the Capuchin mystic long the focus of fanatical devotion worldwide, and the Croatian-born Italian friar St Leopold Mandic, their relics called in by Francis given the duo's shared devotion to the ministry of the Confessional. Likely to be this Jubilee Year's largest Vatican event in terms of crowds, the display of both saints' bodies in St Peter's ends tomorrow.

All that said, despite a time of year when news customarily slows down, Papa Bergoglio's agenda will hardly be letting up over these 40 Days. Come Friday, the Pope heads to Mexico for a six-day swing set to feature deeply evocative scenes at the capital's Guadalupe Basilica (Christianity's most-visited pilgrimage site) and in violence-riddled Michoacan before wrapping up next Wednesday at the US border, and all that after the trip's historic opening leg in Cuba for Friday's unprecedented meeting with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. On an even more pressing front, meanwhile, this Lent is widely expected to bring the release of Francis' all-important final word on the two-year synodal process on the family, with the planned Apostolic Exhortation tipped for publication sometime in March.

And now, back to Lent – below is Vatican Radio's translation of the Pope's homily at tonight's liturgy (emphases original)....

The Word of God, at the beginning of our Lenten journey, offers two invitations to the Church and to each one of us.

The first is that of Saint Paul: “Be reconciled to God.” It is not simply good paternal advice, much less merely a suggestion; it is a true and proper plea in the name of Christ: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Why so solemn and heartfelt an appeal? Because Christ know how fragile we are, that we are sinners, He knows the weakness of our heart; He sees the wounds of the wrongs we have committed and suffered; He knows how much we need forgiveness; He knows how much we need to feel loved in order to do good. By ourselves we are not up to it: that’s why the Apostle doesn’t tell us, “do something,” but rather, “to be reconciled to God,” to allow Him to forgive us, with confidence, because “God is greater than our hearts.” He overcomes sin and lifts us from our misery, if we trust in Him. It is for us to recognize that we are in need of mercy: It is the first step of the Christian journey; it comes in through the open door that is Christ, where He Himself awaits us, the Saviour, and He offers us a new and joyful life.

There can be some obstacles that close the doors of the heart. There is the temptation to bolt the doors, that is, to live with our own proper sins, minimizing them, always justifying ourselves, thinking we are no worse than others; so, then, the locks of the soul are closed, and we remain closed within, prisoners of evil. Another obstacle is the shame in opening the secret door of the heart. Shame, in reality, is a good symptom, because it indicates we want to break away from evil; above all we must never transform it into fear or dread. And there is a third trap, that of moving away from the door: this happens when we dwell on our miseries, when we brood over them continually, to the point where we plunge ourselves into the darkest cellars of the soul. Then we become even more familiar with the sadness we don’t want, we grow discouraged, and are weaker in the face of temptations. This happens because we remain alone with ourselves, closing in on ourselves and fleeing from the light; while it is only the grace of the Lord that frees us. Let us allow ourselves, then, to “be reconciled,” let us listen to Jesus who says to the tired and oppressed “Come to me!” (Mt 11:28). Do not remain in ourselves, but go to Him! There we will find refreshment and peace.

At this celebration the Missionaries of Mercy are present, to receive the mandate to be signs and instruments of the forgiveness of God. Dear brothers, you will be able to help open the doors of the heart, to overcome shame, to not flee from the light. May your hands bless and lift up your brothers and sisters with paternity; that through you the gaze and the hands of the Father might rest on His sons and cure their wounds!

There is a second invitation from God, who says, by way of the prophet Joel, “Return to me with your whole heart” (2:12). If we need to return it is because we are far away. It is the mystery of sin: we are far from God, from others, even from ourselves. It is not difficult to understand: we all see how we struggle to truly have confidence in God, to trust in Him as a Father, without fear; how difficult it is to love others, instead of thinking ill of them; how much it costs us to work for our own true good, while we are attracted to and seduced by so many material realities that fade away, and in the end, leave us impoverished. Beside this story of sin, Christ has inaugurated a story of salvation. The Gospel that opens Lent invites us to be the protagonists of this story, embracing three remedies, three medicines that heal us from sin (cf. Mt 6:1-6; 16-18).

In the first place is prayer, an expression of openness to and confidence in the Lord: it is the personal encounter with Him, which shortens the distance created by sin. To pray is to say “I am not self-sufficient, I need you, You are my life and my salvation.” In the second place is charity, to overcome estrangement in our relations with others. True love, in fact, is not an exterior act, it is not giving something in a paternalistic way to quiet our conscience, but accepting the one who needs our time, our friendship, our help. It is living out an attitude of service, overcoming the temptation to satisfy ourselves. In the third place is fasting, penance, to free ourselves from dependence in our relationship to what is passing, and to train ourselves to be more sensitive and merciful. It is an invitation to simplicity and to sharing: taking something away from our table and from our goods, to rediscover the true good of freedom.

“Return to me,” the Lord says, “with your whole heart”: not only with some external act, but from the depths of your very being. In fact, Jesus calls us to live out prayer, charity, and penance with coherence and authenticity, conquering hypocrisy. Lent should be a time of beneficial “pruning away” of falsehood, worldliness, indifference: in order not to think that everything is ok as long as I’m ok; to understand that what counts is not the approval of others, or search for success or consensus, but cleanness in one’s heart and in one’s life; in order to rediscover the Christian identity – that is, the love that serves, not the selfishness that is served. Let us set out on this journey together, as the Church, receiving the Ashes and keeping our gaze fixed on the Crucified One. Loving us, He invites us to be reconciled with God and to return to Him, in order to rediscover ourselves.