In the Spotlight   

Ash Wednesday

Beginning the Lenten Journey

The Seton Hall Law community gathers for Ash Wednesday with Mass and the Distribution of Ashes, led by Father Nicholas Gengaro

FEBRUARY 10, 2016
12:00 noon and and 5:00 p.m.
Joel 2:12-18
Psalm 51
2 Corinthians 5:20 – 6:2
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Principal Celebrant and Homilist: Father Nicholas S. Gengaro, Chaplain

I am grateful today, for a member of our law school family, a student, helped me write my homily. Let me explain. On Friday, I received an email from a student with a link to an article on about Pope Francis’ “take” on Lent. The student indicated being so moved by the article, it had to be shared.

In his Lenten message this year, Pope Francis addressed the practice of fasting. He asks that Catholics never allow fasting to become superficial, but rather consider the heart of this activity. He quotes the early Church Father, St. John Chrysostom:

No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.

Pope Francis explains,

Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. ... We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.

Francis calls such a deterioration of Christian practice, the globalization of indifference. “Indifference to our neighbor and to God … represents a real temptation for us Christians,” the pope writes. “Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience,” he insists. Perhaps, Francis concludes, the fasting most needed is a fasting from indifference.

So, am I suggesting we use this Lenten message of Pope Francis as a pretext for ripping up the traditional Lenten script of fasting, prayer and almsgiving? Is the pope suggesting this? Of course not. In fact, you saw in the announcement for today’s observance that I referred to fasting, prayer and almsgiving as the “three pillars of Lent.” The Gospel passage from Matthew relates Jesus’ own promotion of these three practices, a recommendation that would have come naturally to him and resonated with his fellow Jews who had been taught these spiritual disciplines from the time of Moses and the prophets.

Judaism understood fasting to be the proper response at times of mourning and repentance, as outlined by the prophet Joel in today’s first reading. Prayer, both individual and communal, was the right way to greet the divine initiative in rescuing and forming God’s people. And almsgiving arose from righteousness, which understood wealth as God’s gift to be shared with the poor who also had a claim on divine bounty. The point Jesus makes (and we may assume the point Pope Francis would have us take to heart) is that all three spiritual disciplines must be practiced with humility and sincerity of heart, not for a show of piety. Honest, self-aware intentionality is all-important. Otherwise, we are “hypocrites.” It’s worth noting, “hypocrite” comes from a Greek word for “actor,” and “hypocrisy” originally meant “playing a part, pretending, acting on the stage.”. Real prayer, fasting and almsgiving are efficacious. Pretense is hollow and useless.

Some of you may already know that Pope Francis has declared 2016 to be a Jubilee Year of Mercy. He has spoken and written extensively on how he desires to see the Catholic Church renewed during this time. In the official Bull of Indiction establishing the observance, Francis wrote: “The season of Lent during this Jubilee Year should also be lived more intensely as a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy” (MV 17.1). Concretely, what should observing the Jubilee Year of Mercy look like on the part of individual Catholics? The pope does not leave us in doubt. Practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, he says. What are they?

The corporal works of mercy are seven:
1. Feed the hungry.
2. Give drink to the thirsty.
3. Clothe the naked.
4. Welcome the stranger.
5. Heal the sick.
6. Visit the imprisoned.
7. Bury the dead.

The spiritual works of mercy are also seven:
1. Counsel the doubtful.
2. Instruct the ignorant.
3. Admonish sinners.
4. Comfort the afflicted.
5. Forgive offences.
6. Bear patiently those who do us ill.
7. Pray for the living and the dead.

There was a time when Catholics often expressed their faith in lists like these. Lists may strike us as quaint, but Pope Francis rightly highlights the works of mercy, for they give us a reference, as he says, “so that we can know whether or not we are living as [Jesus’] disciples” (MV 15.2). In corporate lingo, the works of mercy are our “metrics.” No one can accuse this pope of being vague. And as for “quaint,” try one or two from the list – say, “welcome the stranger,” or “bear patiently those who do us ill” – and see what a serious challenge they present to our good opinion of ourselves.

Finally, during Lent of this Holy Year, Pope Francis is warmly inviting Catholics back to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He is calling upon priests to be “living signs of the Father’s readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon. They will be missionaries of mercy because they will be facilitators of a truly human encounter, a source of liberation, rich with responsibility for overcoming obstacles and taking up the new life of Baptism again….Everyone, in fact, without exception, is called to embrace the call to mercy” (MV 18.1).

I remind you that I am available to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation with anyone who would like to do so. Send me an email, come to my office, see me in the hallway…we’ll find a time. We even have a Reconciliation Room opposite the chapel on the first floor. I will announce times during Lent when I’ll be available in the room for walk-ins.

Two Saturdays ago, I was the celebrant at a First Reconciliation service for 7 and 8 year-olds. There were over 60 in attendance. We read and reflected together on Luke’s parable of the Prodigal Son, the passage Pope Francis recommends as the paradigm for mercy and forgiveness. If you could only have seen the children’s faces and heard their perceptive dialogue with me…. I leave you with the words of a song we sang together, a Traditional Spiritual:  

Somebody’s knocking at your door.
Somebody’s knocking at your door.
Oh, children, why don’t you answer?
Somebody’s knocking at your door.
Jesus is knocking at your door.
Jesus is knocking at your door.
Oh, children, why don’t you answer?
Jesus is knocking at your door.
Open your hearts and let Him in.
Open your hearts and let Him in.
Oh, children, why don’t you answer?
Open your hearts and let Him in.