Pope Francis’ message for Lent this year focuses on this season being a time of renewal in faith, hope and love. These three are what we call the theological virtues. They are theological in the sense that we can only have them by God’s grace and are given as God’s gifts. We can only believe if God grants us that gift – ‘No one can come to me unless the Father call him/her’ (John 6:44). We can only hope by the power of the Holy Spirit – ‘hope will not deceive us for the love of God has been poured into our hearts’ (Rom. 5:5) and we can only love purely by a participation in the love of the God who is love itself – ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ (John 13:34). Let’s take each of these in turn and listen to what the Holy Father teaches us about them.
First on faith. Francis reminds us that ‘faith calls us to accept the truth and testify to it before God and all our brothers and sisters’. Here he closely connects faith or believing with what is true and what is real. Our faith is a reasonable faith that acknowledges the truth that our reason and intelligence can confirm. That said, faith is also something that goes beyond reason. Faith allows us to grasp the truth that reason alone can’t measure. To put it differently, faith contains reason, but faith is not contained by reason. As Blaise Paschal famously once said: ‘The heart has reasons that reason doesn’t know’. Or in the words of St John Paul II, both faith and reason are needed to ascend to the fullness of truth like the two wings of a bird (cf. Fides et Ratio).
For Pope Francis, Lent is a time to accept the truth that Christ came to reveal and to accept him as the truth incarnate in human existence and human language. We do this by ‘opening our hearts to God’s word, which the Church passes on from generation to generation. This truth is not an abstract concept reserved for a chosen intelligent few. Instead, it is a message that all of us can receive and understand thanks to the wisdom of a heart open to the grandeur of God, who loves us even before we are aware of it. Christ himself is this truth’.
With this link between truth and faith, Francis opens up the possibility of faith to people who struggle to believe but who are passionate about the truth, both finding it and living it. For us Christians, we too are called to be passionate about the truth. We must hate any forms of deceit or falsehood. For to love the truth is to love the Lord Jesus who identified himself as ‘the way, the life and THE TRUTH’ (John 14:6).
As a living expression of that faith, Pope Francis teaches that fasting and self-denial in Lent, ‘helps those who undertake it in simplicity of heart to rediscover God’s gift and to recognize that, created in his image and likeness, we find our fulfilment in him’. For Francis, fasting is an act of voluntary poverty, not for its own sake but as an act of solidarity with the poor and as an act of love that is both shared and received. Fasting, for Francis, is also an exercise of freedom and striving to remain free. It involves ‘being freed from all that weighs us down – like consumerism or an excess of information, whether true or false – in order to open the doors of our hearts to the One who comes to us, poor in all things’. Fasting disciplines us in a way that purposely allows our deeper hungers to arise. It is a type of training that unites all of our desires and needs under the single desire to do God’s will and serve his purposes. The traditional days of fasting are Wednesdays but especially Fridays when we unite some sacrifice to that of Jesus’ passion. This could be to refrain from eating meat or to give up a meal and to give what we would save to Trocaire. It could mean us fasting from a desire or attachment that has become too dominant in our lives. We know what they are. Fasting from them restores the balance and restores us to freedom.
Second, Lent is a time to renew our hope. With a striking image, Francis describes hope as ‘living water’ that enables us to continue our journey. He likens hope to a pathway forward that is opened up before us by the Father’s mercy. He writes beautifully of God: ‘Hoping with him and because of him means believing that history does not end with our mistakes, our violence and injustice, or the sin that crucifies Love. It means receiving from his open heart the Father’s forgiveness’.
Rather than waiting for Easter to be a time of hope, Francis proclaims that hope in the here and now in Lent. This is particularly apt at this time of pandemic and great trial for all humanity. Hope is a gift that is offered to us but receiving that gift involves us too. It includes a desire on our part to turn back to God and his ways and to make room for Him in daily life. This means coming back to be forgiven and to forgive in return. Then, Francis writes, ‘having received forgiveness ourselves, we can offer it through our willingness to enter into attentive dialogue with others and to give comfort to those experiencing sorrow and pain. God’s forgiveness, offered also through our words and actions, enables us to experience an Easter of fraternity’.
Lastly, the Holy Father reflects on love which is ‘the highest expression of our faith and hope’. In simple but beautiful language, he reminds us that ‘love is a leap of the heart; it brings us out of ourselves and creates bonds of sharing and communion’.
The love described here is no mere sentimental love but real love that strives to serve and work for justice. With that in mind, love goes out to the margins and has an impulse towards the whole world. It has the desire to build a new and better world. This is the love the pope calls ‘social love’ where he calls for a more mature vocation to love that is broader in scope. But whether our loving reaches those right next to us or those on the other side of the world, ‘love is a gift that gives meaning to our lives. It enables us to view those in need as members of our own family, as friends, brothers or sisters…To experience Lent with love means caring for those who suffer or feel abandoned and fearful because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In these days of deep uncertainty about the future, let us keep in mind the Lord’s word to his Servant, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you” (Is 43:1). In our charity, may we speak words of reassurance and help others to realize that God loves them as sons and daughters’.
Typically, at the end of his message, Pope Francis reflects on Mary, woman of faith, hope and love who walks close to us as a pilgrim Church and prays for our transformation this Lent. She urges us to become people more perfect in faith, hope and love as she leads us gently into a deeper friendship with her Beloved Son. With the concluding blessing of Francis ‘May the blessing of the risen Lord accompany all of us on our journey towards the light of Easter. Amen’.
Fr Billy Swan