On his last Good Friday as pope to the Church Universal, Benedict XVI said during his homily: “The readings that have just been proclaimed offer us ideas which, by the grace of God, we are called to transform into a concrete attitude and behavior during Lent.” Imagine, thinking that the Scriptures can be a guide to what we are to think and do over these forty days in preparation for Easter and eternity.
He continued, precisely in “concrete” terms:
First of all the Church proposes the powerful appeal which the prophet Joel addresses to the people of Israel, “Thus says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” (2.12). Please note the phrase “with all your heart,” which means from the very core of our thoughts and feelings, from the roots of our decisions, choices and actions, with a gesture of total and radical freedom. But is this return to God possible? Yes, because there is a force that does not reside in our hearts, but that emanates from the heart of God and the power of His mercy.
But for our hearts to be able to participate in this force that is not “us,” we have to be realistic about what is required:
this return to God becomes a reality in our lives only when the grace of God penetrates and moves our innermost core, gifting us the power that ‘rends the heart.’ Once again the prophet proclaims these words from God: ‘Rend your hearts and not your garments.’ (v. 13). Today, in fact, many are ready to ‘rend their garments’ over scandals and injustices – which are, of course, caused by others – but few seem willing to act according to their own ‘heart,’ their own conscience and their own intentions, by allowing the Lord transform, renew and convert them.
At the same time, conversion is not merely individual because none of exists wholly apart from the communities of various kinds in which we find ourselves. So while Benedict rightly reminds us first to reform ourselves, he specifies what those communities are also required to do:
we heard in the first reading: “Blow the horn in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly! Gather the people, sanctify the congregation; Assemble the elderly; gather the children, even infants nursing at the breast; Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her bridal tent.” (vv.15-16) The community dimension is an essential element in faith and Christian life. Christ came “to gather the children of God who are scattered into one.” (Jn 11:52). The “we” of the Church is the community in which Jesus brings us together (cf. Jn 12:32), faith is necessarily ecclesial. And it is important to remember and to live this during Lent: each person must be aware that the penitential journey cannot be faced alone, but together with many brothers and sisters in the Church.
Let’s pray that Pope Benedict has a fruitful Lent and Easter, and remains in good health! What a great gift to the Church he was and is!
Lent always seems to catch us suddenly, so soon after Christmas. And this year we need Lent more than ever, because in so many ways our world seems to have gone haywire. If we want to change the world, as Benedict explained, we must begin with improving ourselves, which ultimately only occurs with God’s grace.
How do we go about it? Below are some suggestions, which could perhaps even extend beyond Lent and become lasting habits:
1. Attend Mass several days a week, either arriving early or staying late to pray for your special intentions before the Blessed Sacrament, Who will listen as you speak to him heart to heart.
2. Pray the Rosary daily on your way to or from work, offering particularly the Sorrowful Mysteries for the end of the capital crime of abortion in our country, lest we bring God’s righteous wrath down upon us.
3. Sacrifice one meal a day for religious liberty in our country and also for Christians suffering persecution in the Middle East.
4. Talk to one or two friends about becoming Catholic and to one or two lukewarm or fallen-away Catholics about going to Confession or returning to the Church – and back up your initiative with prayer.
5. Consider making a general confession during Lent – not out of scruples over past confessions but as a means of spiritual growth. You will feel like a new person, ready to win the world for the Lord.
6. Make a special effort to ask your spouse about how you can better help him/her and do the same with your children.
7. Give up television and/or all movies for Lent – after all, football and baseball are not in season! (Or maybe restrict your viewing to current episodes of “Downton Abbey” for a break—we are only human.)
8. Resolve to start regular spiritual direction with a priest or well-trained man or woman. We all need help and the sooner the better.
9. Make a generous donation – one that hurts – to your parish or local pro-life pregnancy center or get your hands dirty by helping out at a soup kitchen.
10. Reconcile with relatives or estranged or former friends, or at least make the attempt.
11. Make the Way of the Cross once a week, in any form you choose. Pick up a guide to the stations by St. Josemaria, or St. John Paul II, or Pope Benedict, or Blessed John Henry Newman, my favorite.
And pay attention in prayer: you may hear of still other paths you in particular should follow.