Lent begins next week, but Pope Benedict XVI was way ahead of time in the writing and release of the first Lenten message of his pontificate. According to the Vatican Information Service, the text had been completed on Sept. 29.
The title of the Lenten message is taken from a verse in St. Mark’s Gospel: “Jesus, at the sight of the crowds, was moved with pity” (6:34). Benedict’s selection of the verse is not without significance. The new pope once again chooses to emphasize the compassion and mercy of God and of his Son, Jesus Christ, rather than their readiness to punish us for our sins.
He refers to the Lord as the “fount of mercy.” Even in the face of the temptation to despair, he writes, “God is there to guard us and sustain us.” Indeed, the Lord “hears the cry of the multitudes longing for joy, peace, and love,” and “does not allow darkness to prevail.”
In modern times, the church carries on the Lord’s works of compassion and mercy by promoting “development in its fullness,” a reality that includes humanity’s material and social needs as well as the spiritual.
Pope Benedict cites the prophetic encyclical of the late Pope Paul VI, Populorum progressio (1967), which described “the scandal of underdevelopment as an outrage against humanity.” Specifically, Paul VI denounced the lack of basic material necessities for millions of the world’s population who are exploited and “mutilated by selfishness and oppressive social structures.”
If the church has a distinctive contribution to make to the full development of humankind, Paul VI insisted, it is in educating consciences and teaching “the authentic dignity of the person and of work” and “the promotion of a culture that truly responds to all the questions of humanity.”
“Thanks to men and women obedient to the Holy Spirit,” Benedict XVI’s Lenten message continues, “many forms of charitable work intended to promote development have arisen in the Church: hospitals, universities, professional formation schools, and small businesses. Such initiatives demonstrate the genuine humanitarian concern of those moved by the Gospel message, far in advance of other forms of social welfare.”
Like Jesus himself, who was moved to compassion for the crowds, “the Church today considers it her duty to ask political leaders and those with economic and financial power to promote development based on respect for the dignity of every man and woman.”
Then, just as he had done in his first encyclical on God as love itself, the new pope openly acknowledges in this year’s Lenten message that the church itself has made “many mistakes” in the course of history, even while claiming to be true disciples of Jesus.
One such mistake was in believing that changing external structures alone would be sufficient to advance human dignity and social justice.
Citing his immediate predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Benedict warns of the temptation “to reduce Christianity to merely human wisdom.” Jesus, his predecessor had insisted, came to bring “integral salvation.”
“It is this integral salvation” — salvation of the whole person and of the whole of the human community — “that Lent puts before us, pointing towards the victory of Christ over every evil that oppresses us.”
“Throughout history,” the Lenten message concludes, “even when hate seems to prevail, the luminous testimony of His love is never lacking.”
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope last April, a number of Catholics on the far right end of the ecclesiastical spectrum could hardly contain their sense of jubilation. Had this been the extent of their emotional reaction, no one could have faulted them for their legitimate expression of joy over the election of a theologically kindred spirit.
But their reaction did not end there. For too many at the far edges of the Catholic community, it was a time for settling scores, for taunting one’s perceived adversaries within the church and for hurling threats against fellow Catholics who had a more guarded, even anxiously negative, reaction to the outcome of the conclave.
One such Catholic was quoted in a post-election interview in USA Today saying that liberal and reform-minded Catholics should stop their “whining” and decide whether to leave the church or not. “Why stay,” he asked with consummate arrogance, “where you’re not wanted?”
The most effective rebuttal to such mean-spirited people is to point to the splendid example of the new pope himself, who is not at all fulfilling their darkest expectations.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.