My dear brothers
and sisters in Christ Jesus:
On March 1, the church universal enters into the holy season of Lent. In his Lenten message, Pope Francis reminds us: "Lent is a new beginning, a path leading to the certain goal of Easter, Christ’s victory over death. This season urgently calls us to conversion. Christians are asked to return to God ‘with all their hearts’ (Joel 2:12), to refuse to settle for mediocrity and to grow in friendship with the Lord." (Message for Lent 2017). These words present a serious and definite challenge, yet it is not a new message. Rather, our Holy Father is reiterating what has always been the purpose of these 40 days of renewal: prayer, contemplation, fasting, almsgiving and penance: to appreciate the salvific depth and grace of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.
One who takes seriously our redemption in Christ cannot ignore this privileged time in Lent. In response to the need to enter more fully into the paschal mystery, our parishes offer more opportunities to attend daily Mass and Eucharistic adoration, recognizing that the most holy Eucharist is the heart of our union with Christ and the source and summit of our faith practice. In addition, increased hours for the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation are made available in many parishes. On Tuesday, March 28, parishes throughout the diocese again will celebrate a Day of Penance and Mercy, making confession available at scheduled times throughout the day. Again, Jesus raises His hand in absolution and benediction, imparting forgiveness through the priestly ministry.
In his Lenten message, Pope Francis calls to mind that: "The liturgy of Ash Wednesday invites us to an experience quite similar to that of the rich man in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (cf. Luke 16:19-1). When the priest imposes the ashes on our heads, he repeats the words: ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ As it turned out, the rich man and the poor man both died, and the greater part of the parable takes place in the afterlife. The two characters suddenly discover that ‘we brought nothing into the world, and we take nothing out of it’ (1 Timothy 6:7)." As we know from the parable, Lazarus, who suffered terribly in his earthly life, now lives eternally with Jesus, but the rich man, indifferent to the plight of the poor man and consumed with satisfying his own personal needs during his lifetime, has "fixed a great abyss" and has "found torment" (Luke 16:25-26).
We can spend a lifetime believing only in and being directed by the material aspects of life, forgetting that the eternal values are of God. God’s values are transcendent, far beyond the limitations and imperfections of the material and the physical, and beyond any earthly value. The gifts of the most holy Eucharist, the sacrament of reconciliation, the Word of God, and the charity extended to a sister or brother in need are priceless. It is only through communion with the Lord that at the end of this life we leave the world of ashes and dust to participate eternally in the divine life of Christ.
All that we are is defined by our relationship with God, who commands us to love Him and to love our neighbor. Lent asks us to contemplate this very basic foundation of our life in Christ. What should concern us is that as basic as these two great commandments are and as often as they have been taught and proclaimed, so many still do not know God. Or they may know about Him but they do not know Him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the loving God who invites us into the love of the Trinity. And if God is not known, how can God be loved? The loss of experiencing the embrace of God’s love puts such restrictions upon the possibilities of every person to reach beyond oneself, beyond the temporal, beyond the material and to leave the finite for the infinite. It is with God that we live no longer in isolation, but as part of a family whose members have gone before us, who live among us, and who will follow after us – we are part of God’s family!
St. Leo the Great powerfully spoke of our membership in God’s family: "Become aware, O Christian, of your dignity; and having been made a participant in the divine nature, do not return to your prior baseness through behavior unworthy of your family. Remember who your head is, and of whose body you are a member. Recall that you were stripped away from the power of the shadows and carried into the light of the Kingdom of God" (Lent and Easter with the Church Fathers, p. 11). During these days of Lenten devotion, praying and meditating upon the Stations of the Cross, Christ’s sacrificial path to Calvary, helps us to understand the depth of Christ’s love for each person, a love ever present, but sadly ignored or rejected by some even today. "He came to what was His own, but His own people did not accept Him" (John 1:11).
But the Savior’s arms never tire of being outstretched awaiting our return to Him. He constantly repeats the embrace of the father in the parable of the prodigal son: "While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him." To his servants the father said: "Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found" (cf. Luke 15:20-25).
Few doubt the many sad divisions, the anger and hostility, the violence and wars that scar our world. Many discussions abound about the need for unity and reconciliation. But will these longed-for gifts of unity and peace ever be realized without hearing the name of God, listening to His Word and accepting the message of the One who created all that is? Let us never forget that the Father sent the Son to save us, and the Son prayed: "I pray not only for them, but also for those who still believe in me through their word, so that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they all may be one, as we are one" (John 17:20-22). Likewise, Jesus promises us: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you" (John 14:27).
In sum, Lent is a time to find faith, renew faith, live by faith and to recognize the union between body, mind and soul, earth and heaven. St. Augustine helps us put this life into proper perspective through his words: "Virtually everyone fears the death of the body, so few the death of the soul. Everyone worries about the death of the body, which must happen sooner or later, and does everything possible to avert it … Yet all that one does to avoid death is in vain … Oh, if we could only succeed in urging others – and ourselves with them – to love eternal life at least as much as they love fleeting life!" (Lent and Easter with the Church Fathers, pp. 2-3).
I pray that these 40 days of Lent will bring us closer to the Lord, help our understanding of our eternal destiny, impress upon us the great commandment to love our Lord that motivates our outreach to the poor, the sick, the abandoned and the refugee whose "clothes are ragged; their victuals the good will of the merciful; their food is what is given them by chance . . . their cup is the hollow of their hands; their closet is their clothing, provided it is not too ragged and covers what is put there; their table is their knees held together; their bed is the ground . . . Provide for them, O you who fast. Be generous in the face of your brothers’, sisters’ misfortunes . . . What you give is certainly not a loss" (St. Gregory of Nyssa, Lent and Easter with the Church Fathers, p. 102).
How differently we approach life when we really believe the creed we profess each weekend: "I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." May Lent bring us to the joy of Easter, Christ’s proclamation of eternal life!
Invoking the intercession of our Mother Mary, our Mother of Sorrows who stood beneath the cross, and our patron, St. John Fisher, who grasped the light that would follow his martyrdom in testifying to the truth, I remain,
Devotedly yours in Christ,
The Most Reverend Salvatore R. Matano
Bishop of Rochester