Pope Francis has told the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, as well as “the proud, the powerful and the wealthy” of this world (some of whom are Christian), that “for all of us, the season of Lent in this Jubilee Year is a favorable time to overcome our existential alienation by listening to God’s word and by practicing the works of mercy.”
He highlighted these two challenges—listen to God’s Word and practice the works of mercy—in a Message for Lent which the Vatican released today, January 26. Lent begins this year on Ash Wednesday, February 10, and ends on Holy Saturday, March 26. Easter Sunday falls on March 27.
From the beginning of his pontificate Francis has emphasized that God is a God of Mercy, and in these three years he has sought in various ways to help people understand this and to make this mercy available to people everywhere. For this reason he called the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and opened it in Bangui, the capital of the conflict stricken Central African Republic, on Nov. 29.
In his brief message for Lent this year, Francis once again reminds people that throughout human history “God shows himself ever rich in mercy, ever ready to treat his people with deep tenderness and compassion” even when his chosen people are not faithful to him.
He reminds everyone that God’s mercy “holds a central and fundamental place” in the Gospel of Jesus that is proclaimed to the world. “Mercy expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe,” he stated.
As a 17-year-old student in Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future pope, had an extraordinary, quasi mystical, experience of God’s mercy which transformed his life, and so in today’s message he is able to state with conviction that “God’s mercy transforms human hearts; it enables us, through the experience of a faithful love, to become merciful in turn.”
He tells the world that once people have experienced God’s mercy then this “divine mercy shines forth” in their own lives too “inspiring each of us to love our neighbor and to devote ourselves to what the church’s tradition calls the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.”
Francis explains that these specific works of mercy “remind us that faith finds expression in concrete everyday actions meant to help our neighbors in body and spirit: by feeding, visiting, comforting and instructing them.” Moreover, he says, “on such things will we be judged” at the end of time.
He spoke explicitly about these works of mercy in the Bull of Indiction for the Jubilee Year and then, as also in today’s message, he expressed the hope that “the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy” and that this reflection would be “a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty, and to enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy.”
Pope Francis reminds Christians that Jesus—or as he puts it ‘the flesh of Christ’—“becomes visible in the flesh of the tortured, the crushed, the scourged, the malnourished, and the exiled.” Christians are called to recognize and respond to this reality, he explains, and they are called especially to acknowledge this “when the poor are our brothers or sisters in Christ who are suffering for their faith.”
He explains that the Gospel of Jesus makes clear that “the real poor are revealed as those who refuse to see themselves as such.” These are people who “consider themselves rich” but in fact “are actually the poorest of the poor” and ”this is because they are slaves to sin, which leads them to use wealth and power not for the service of God and others, but to stifle within their hearts the profound sense that they too are only poor beggars.”
Francis underlined the fact that “the greater their power and wealth, the more this blindness and deception can grow” and “it can even reach the point of being blind to Lazarus begging at their doorstep.” He explained that Lazarus, the poor man in the Gospel story,” is a figure of Christ, who through the poor pleads for our conversion” and “as such, he represents the possibility of conversion which God offers us and which we may well fail to see.”
Indeed, he said, “such blindness is often accompanied by the proud illusion of our own omnipotence, which reflects in a sinister way the diabolical ‘you will be like God’ (Gen 3:5) which is the root of all sin.”
The Jesuit pope pointed out that “this illusion” of omnipotence “can likewise take social and political forms, as shown by the totalitarian systems of the twentieth century, and, in our own day, by the ideologies of monopolizing thought and techno-science, which would make God irrelevant and reduce man to raw material to be exploited.”
This illusion of omnipotence, he said, “can also be seen in the sinful structures linked to a model of false development based on the idolatry of money, which leads to lack of concern for the fate of the poor on the part of wealthier individuals and societies; they close their doors, refusing even to see the poor.”
Pope Francis said that “for all of us, then, the season of Lent in this Jubilee Year is a favorable time to overcome our existential alienation by listening to God’s word and by practicing the works of mercy.”
He reminded everyone that “in the corporal works of mercy we touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, visited; in the spiritual works of mercy—counsel, instruction, forgiveness, admonishment and prayer—we touch more directly our own sinfulness.”
He insisted that “the corporal and spiritual works of mercy must never be separated. By touching the flesh of the crucified Jesus in the suffering, sinners can receive the gift of realizing that they too are poor and in need” and “by taking this path, the ‘proud’, the ‘powerful’ and the ‘wealthy’ spoken of in the Magnificat can also be embraced and undeservedly loved by the crucified Lord who died and rose for them.”
Francis affirmed that “(Christ’s) love alone is the answer to that yearning for infinite happiness and love that we think we can satisfy with the idols of knowledge, power and riches.” But, he warned that “the danger always remains that by a constant refusal to open the doors of their hearts to Christ who knocks on them in the poor, the proud, rich and powerful will end up condemning themselves and plunging into the eternal abyss of solitude which is Hell.”
The Argentine pope concluded his message by telling his global audience, “Let us not waste this season of Lent, (which is) such a favorable a time for conversion.”