At the ancient
Roman Basilica of Santa Sabina known today as the mother church of the Order of
Preachers, the Pope began Lent with the reception of ashes. The imposition of ashes is not ritualistic sign without meaning: we put ashes on our heads not in contradiction of the Gospel chosen for that day but as a way to remind ourselves that an outward sign conveys an inward reality. He first began the Lenten prayer at the
Benedictine Church of Sant’Anselmo (just down the street from Santa Sabina).
There he gathered with the monks, priests, bishops , cardinals and laity for a
visit to the Blessed Sacrament, brief service of prayer and a procession to
Santa Sabina where Holy Mass was celebrated. Yes, the pope walks the streets of Rome, but in a limited way. It is a gesture full of beauty. This is ancient way for the Roman
Pontiff to lead the Church into a season of penance and preparation for the
sacred Triduum. The Holy Father’s homily is below.
We begin today the
liturgical season of Lent with the thought-provoking rite of the imposition of
ashes, through which we wish to take on the commitment to convert our hearts to
the horizons of grace. In general, in common opinion, this time runs the risk
of being marked by sadness, by the darkness of life. Instead, it is a precious
gift of God; it is an intense time full of meanings in the journey of the
Church; it is the itinerary to the Lord’s Easter. The biblical readings of
today’s celebration give us indications to live this spiritual experience
“Return to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). In the first reading taken from the Book of the prophet Joel, we have heard these words with which God invited the Jewish people to sincere, not apparent, repentance. It is not about a superficial and transitory conversion but, rather, a spiritual itinerary which has much to do with the attitudes of the conscience and which implies a sincere resolution to repent. The prophet begins with the plague of the invasion of locusts, which fell on the people destroying their crops, to invite them to interior penance, to rend their hearts and not their garments (cf. 2:13).
Hence, it is about putting into practice an attitude of genuine conversion to God — of return 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, which creates a pure heart in us, renews our interior in a firm spirit, restoring to us the joy of salvation (cf. Psalm 50:14). God, in fact, does not will the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live (cf. Ezekiel 33:11). So the prophet Joel orders, in the name of the Lord, that an appropriate penitential environment be created: It is necessary to blow the trumpet, convoke the meeting, awaken consciences.
The Lenten period proposes to us this liturgical and penitential ambit: a journey of forty days where we can experience in an effective way the merciful love of God. Today the call resounds for us: “Return to me with all your heart”; today we are the ones called to convert our hearts to God, conscious that we cannot carry out our conversion by ourselves, with our own efforts, because it is God who converts us. He offers us once again his forgiveness, inviting us to return to Him to give us a new heart, purified from the evil that oppresses it, to have us take part in his joy. Our world needs to be converted to God; it needs his forgiveness, his love; it needs a new heart.
“Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). In the second reading, Saint Paul offers us another element on the path to conversion. The Apostle invites to look away from him and to direct our attention instead to the One who has sent him and to the content of the message he brings: “[s]o we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (Ibid.). An ambassador repeats what he has heard his Lord say and he speaks with the authority and within the limits he has received. He who carries out the office of ambassador must not attract attention to himself, but must place himself at the service of the message he must transmit and of the one who sent him. Saint Paul acts thus when carrying out his ministry of preaching the Word of God and of Apostle of Jesus Christ. He does not shrink in face of the task received, but carries it out with total dedication, inviting us to open ourselves to grace, to allow God to convert us. “Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1).
“Now then, Christ’s call to conversion,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “continues to resound in the lives of Christians. […] is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who ‘clasping sinners to her bosom, [is]at once holy and always in need of purification, [and] follows constantly the path of penance and renewal’ (LG 8). This endeavor of conversion is not just a human work. It is the movement of a ‘contrite heart’ (Psalm 51:19), drawn and moved by grace (cf. John 6:44; 12:32) to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first (cf. 1 John 4:10)” (No. 1428).
St. Paul speaks to the Christians of Corinth, but through them he intends to address all men. All in fact are in need of the grace of God, to illumine their minds and hearts. And the Apostle adds: “now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). We can all open ourselves to God’s action, to his love; with our evangelical witness, we Christians must be a living message, in fact, in many cases we are the only Gospel that the men of today still read. This is our responsibility, following the steps of Saint Paul, here is another reason to live Lent well: to give witness of a lived faith to a world in difficulty that needs to return to God, which is in need of conversion.
“Beware of practicing your piety be
fore men in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). In today’s Gospel, Jesus repeats the three essential works of piety established in the Mosaic Law. Almsgiving, prayer and fasting characterized the Jews who observed the law. With the passing of time, these prescriptions were stained by the rust of exterior formalism, or they have even been transformed into a sign of superiority.
In these three works of piety Jesus makes evident a common temptation. When something good is done, almost instinctively the desire arises to be esteemed and admired for the good action, to have some satisfaction. And this, on one hand, shuts us in on ourselves, and on the other it takes us out of ourselves, because we live projected to what others think of us and admire in us. In proposing these prescriptions again, the Lord Jesus does not ask for formal respect to a law foreign to man, imposed by a severe lawmaker as a heavy burden, but he invites us to rediscover these three works of piety by living them more profoundly, not for love of self but for love of God, as means on the path of conversion to Him.
Almsgiving, prayer and fasting is the course of the divine pedagogy that supports us, not only in Lent, toward the encounter with the Risen Lord; a path to follow without ostentation, in the certainty that the heavenly Father is able to read and also to see in the secrecy of our hearts.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us begin this Lenten itinerary confident and joyful. Forty days separate us from Easter; this “intense” time of the liturgical year is a propitious time to attend, with greater commitment, to our conversion, to intensify listening to the Word of God, prayer and penance, opening our hearts to the docile acceptance of the divine will, for a more generous practice of mortification, thanks to which we will go more readily to help our needy neighbor: a spiritual itinerary which prepares us to receive the Paschal Mystery.
May Mary, our guide on our Lenten path, lead us to an ever more profound knowledge of Christ, dead and resurrected, may she help us in the spiritual battle against sin, may she sustain us on invoking forcefully: Convert us, “Deus salutaris noster” — Convert us to You, O God, our salvation. Amen!