As we move from ordinary time and prepare for the great season of Lent, we are reminded that each of us – all of us – are sinners who need God’s grace and forgiveness. After Pope Francis was elected pope in 2013, he gave an extraordinary interview. When he was asked by the interviewer who is Jorge Bergoglio – he paused in reflection and then said, “I am a sinner.” This was not for show but a humble and deep recognition that before God, we are all beggars and sinners in need of forgiveness. The call to conversion of heart – metanoia – is always in season as we seek to become more like God.
In the first reading from this weekend’s Mass, we are called to “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” The Second Vatican Council affirmed the universal call to holiness – all of God’s people are called by God so seek holiness – to seek a life pleasing to the Lord. For years, some Catholics believed that holiness was realistically applied to the life of priests and religious. Have you spent considerable time among priests and religious – we struggle living holy lives as much as any Catholic in the Church. Rather, God calls all his children to holiness because God knows that this is where true happiness is found. When our lives reflect the goodness of God, we experience greater freedom and light – and faith becomes more attractive to others, because of the authenticity of our witness.
As a priest, there is no liturgy more moving to me than Ash Wednesday. We often see more Catholics in attendance on Ash Wednesday than holy days of obligation throughout the year. I am moved by the sincere desire for repentance on the faces of those gathered. There is a personal and collective sense of our need for God and our desire to turn away from sin. The outward manifestation of the death of Christ in the ashes placed on our foreheads not only reminds us of our own mortality, but also reminds us that, through the cross and resurrection of Christ, we pass from death to new life. In Lent, we are invited into the depths of Jesus’s Paschal Mystery – his life, his passion, and his death, as we wait with hope for the promise of new life which we celebrate with joy at Easter.
For the past several weeks, we have been reading from Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians. Corinth, during the time of Paul, was a bustling Mediterranean port city which was marked by diverse cultural influences – some of which were aligned to the nascent Christian faith and others opposed. Not only does Paul call the Corinthians to practice charity and to be united in the faith, he also calls them to remember that their bodies are temples of God and that the “Spirit of God dwells in you.” This message is for us as well and should mark our approach to the world. Many of the Corinthians struggled with worldly desires and this certainly seems to ring true today. Lent is a time to reorient ourselves. As sojourners whose true home is in heaven, we are called to seek that which is above – to set our faces and our lives toward the Kingdom of God. This process requires us to acknowledge those dark places, places of sin and selfishness, which need the grace of transformation. What idols have crowded into our lives, the masters we serve and place before God?
During the season of Lent, the Church calls us to embrace prayer, fasting, almsgiving. Each of these Lenten practices is a discipline that allows us to become more holy and less attached to the world. These practices also move us beyond ourselves to a deeper union with God and more compassionate love of our neighbor. Prayer lifts our hearts beyond self-preoccupation to the God who made us and calls us to enter into a deeper union with the Trinity. Fasting invites us to move beyond earthly desires in a way that unites our small sacrifice to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. Almsgiving moves us beyond ourselves to the good and needs of our neighbor – especially those who suffer on the margins and in whom Jesus himself is sublimely present.
What will our souls look like on Easter Sunday? This Lenten season invites us to embrace deep metanoia as we die and rise with Christ and experience new life that awaits those who follow God.