In this issue:
According to the early Fathers of the Church, all true repentance must begin with humility. To take our eyes off others’ sins and instead to admit our own is an act of humility.
In our faults we come to know more profoundly the love of God. Repentance then is to live within the dialogue of salvation.
Lent is a time to delve deeply into our lives during this season of penance and give a thorough look at what our values are and how we live them out each day.
By Marcellino D’Ambrosio/Catholic News Service
The call to a change of heart and a change of life was a hallmark of the ministry of Jesus, of his forerunner, John the Baptist, and of his apostles. And the Lenten season, which has been part of the Christian year from the earliest days of the church, has always made repentance its centerpiece.
But if we take a good look at the way the early church approached sin, repentance and the Lenten season, we notice some significant differences from the way American Catholics of the 21st century ordinarily approach these things.
Many today see Lent as a season of spiritual self-help. Each person picks something to give up and tries to work on a fault or two. We may attend a parish penance service, but Lenten penance is pretty much a personal thing.
For the first few centuries after the resurrection, to become a Christian was a radical act. It involved a complete break with a former way of life and the values of a pagan society. Baptism was not only a solemn commitment to a holy God and a holy lifestyle, but an empowerment by the Holy Spirit that made it possible to live the Gospel.
So for a person to fall into serious sin after baptism was abnormal. It signaled something was seriously wrong and required an urgent response not only on the part of sinner, but of the entire community.
Today, a lengthy period of sometimes painful physical therapy is often required to restore an injured limb to health. In the early church, a lengthy period of penance was understood as spiritual rehab, necessary to restore the health of sinners and the well-being and equilibrium of the church.
For the first 800 years of the church, those who had fallen into grave sin would come to church for a prolonged period dressed in sackcloth and ashes, seeking the prayers of the community. Though sins were confessed privately to the bishop, penance was therefore a public affair.
Lent was a special time when the whole church labored in penance alongside catechumens preparing for baptism and penitents preparing to receive absolution and reconciliation at Easter.
It was a time of solidarity and unity, with the mature and the strong walking shoulder to shoulder with the immature and the weak, all wearing the same ashes.
While praying and doing penance for those seeking healing from serious sin, everyone sought purification from the sneaky venial sins that quietly eat away at our hearts and lurk in so many nooks and crannies of our lives.
This solidarity and unity in doing penance together underscores another feature of repentance in the early church. The church is holy according to the creed. But it is also one.
The early church took seriously the call to unity, expressed in a love between Christians that was striking to those from the outside looking in. The first church collections were for widows and the poor, not for the maintenance of buildings. Martyrs would embrace one another in the arena before their execution and cause the spectators to remark, “See how they love one another.”
But like us, Christians of the first centuries sometimes lost their perspective. Sins against unity were considered among the most serious of spiritual offenses.
When young members of the Church of Corinth tore the community in two, seizing leadership from the elders appointed by the apostles, Pope Clement of Rome intervened. He did not issue a bureaucratic decree to resolve the problem, but rather a long and beautiful teaching on the root of disunity and the nature of true repentance.
What is the cause of disunity and dissension, he asked. Is it not pride? Rivalry, bitter criticism of others, the dwelling on others’ faults, refusal to forgive shortcomings — don’t these come from a perverse passion to exalt and justify ourselves?
Ultimately the pride that disrupts unity among people is the very thing that drives a wedge between us and God. For pride exalts itself against everyone, even God.
In the tradition of the Fathers of the Church, picked up and developed by the medieval monks, seven deadly sins are identified from which all other sins flow. The deadliest of these seven is pride.
Therefore, according to the early Fathers of the Church, all true repentance must begin with humility. To take our eyes off others’ sins and instead to admit our own — this is only possible through humility. To take our eyes off ourselves and look to God is also an act of humility.
“Humility” is closely related to the word “humus,” the component of earth that makes it fertile. When we get too big for our britches and our life becomes spiritual sterile, we need to recall that we came from the earth and will return to the earth. We need to get grounded once again.
Perhaps this is why the season of Lent begins with the sign of the cross traced on our forehead with ashes. “Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”
D’Ambrosio is author of “When the Church Was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers.” Connect with him @DrItaly.
By Father Graham G. Golden, OPraem/Catholic News Service
As we enter Lent we are welcomed by the phrases “repent and believe in the Gospel” or “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These words are spoken as a cross of ashes is placed on our foreheads.
As Catholic Christians this is a time to understand our call to repentance. This call is one to an honest and authentic understanding of our self and of God. Our repentance is what reminds us that we are “dust.” In this there is great freedom.
We are called to see our own smallness and weakness. In so doing we recognize God’s mercy, love and greatness. It is the call that orients us toward the good news, the Gospel.
In the Exsultet sung to the light of Christ at the Easter Vigil, we hear “O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”
We see at the close of Lent this beauty of the paradox of our journey of repentance: In the midst of our faults we come to know more profoundly the love of God. Repentance then is to live within the dialogue of salvation.
This dialogue is not just to sit and wallow in guilt or shame waiting for and begging on God’s love. Nor is it simply to acknowledge God’s love and see no compulsion for change and conversion.
Rather it is a constant movement of our hearts to God for he is always reaching for us. It is an encounter with an honest assessment of ourselves and a deep trust in what God can do in us. This repentance is a process, something we return to over and over again.
Our call to repentance is really our call to conversion. It is our call to change, but to become our most authentic selves and children of God.
We know who we are in God when we turn to face God, to point ourselves toward God. The act of repentance is really a practice for our whole journey of conversion. To repent is to return to our Creator from whom we have strayed.
Repentance is inspired by God’s grace and love, for as John the Evangelist tells us in his first letter, “We love because he first loved us” (4:19). Even our movement toward God is because of his grace, as St. Augustine preached.
God is always waiting for us to turn toward him. In the parable of the prodigal son, we see a loving father who always waits for the return of wayward children. He rejoices in our return.
To return, however, requires us to see the state of our lives honestly and to be able to give voice to what has burdened us and what we have done.
God does not simply wait for us. He initiates this dialogue. He searches for us. In Genesis when Adam and Eve are disobedient, though they hide in shame, God comes looking for them.
Although they try and clothe themselves with fig leaves, God wraps them in skins. God does not remove the consequence of their sin as Adam and Eve still leave the garden. However, he pursues them, clothes their shame and gives them the tools to return to him.
This is in part the value of the pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Each of these elements reminds us of our constant dependency on God.
Although we may see our brokenness, we also see more clearly God’s grace. When we know we have been pursued by his love and we have returned to it, we also see the importance of modeling this in our own relationships.
We cannot force the other to return to us, but we can always offer open arms. We cannot hide from those we have wronged, but rather can speak in honesty and truth.
Our Lenten journey helps us to see ourselves and God more clearly, that we may see one another and live a life of conversion that extends far beyond the joyous hope we know at Easter.
Father Golden, a Norbertine priest, writes from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
By Effie Caldarola/Catholic News Service
Lent presents me with the opportunity — and the obligation — to examine where my life is modeling your example and where I am failing to help bring about the kingdom of God.
Help me to delve deeply into my life during this season of penance and give a thorough look at what my values are and how I live them out each day.
Many times, I consult my “grocery list” of sins, confess them and find them remarkably similar month after month. I say my act of contrition and move on.
This Lent, I ask you to help me to look more intensely into the trajectory of my life, and the trajectory of each precious day. Help me not to skim the surface of minor infractions, but to probe the depth of motivation and desire.
If I truly believe that a relationship with you, Jesus, is the ultimate goal of my life, how and where do I fail to apply myself to this goal?
Forgive me for the days when I have neglected a time of quiet and reflection necessary to anchor myself in your love and direction. Forgive me for failing to seek out spiritual nourishment in reading and entertainment. Forgive me when I’ve neglected to nourish a faith community, a community that supports me and my family as we strive to grow in grace.
Help me to examine my priorities for the use of my leisure time, my volunteer time, my family time.
Do I hear the cry of the poor? Forgive me for the times I have stayed insulated in my security and failed to reach out in a personal way to the hungry, the naked, the refugee, the suffering, the sick and the grieving.
Forgive me for straying from the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Help me to examine them and make them a focus of my Lenten good works.
Do I live as if loving is my first priority? Forgive me for the times I fail to look another, particularly a child, in the eyes and truly listen.
Forgive me for the times I have been so convinced of my rightness on an issue that I have failed to value the opinion and the person of another. Forgive me for the times I’ve been selfish with my resources. Forgive me for the times I’ve automatically thought “me first.”
Do I acknowledge that the deepest desire of every human heart is God, and yet continue to procrastinate in my pursuit of the holy? Do I seek God in all things? Forgive me for laziness. Help me to make concrete plans this Lent.
The prophet Jeremiah said the Lord promises us a new covenant. “I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33).
Lord, help me to probe my heart during Lent, to find your law there and to experience your healing love.
Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.
“I like to think (God) has one weakness: a bad memory,” Pope Francis told a group of seminarians, new priests and priests taking a course sponsored by the Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome, March 4, 2016.
“Once he has forgiven you, he forgets. And this is great!” the pope said. “The sins are no more; they have been wiped away by divine mercy.”
The sacrament of reconciliation, Pope Francis said, is a “privileged place to experience the mercy of God.”
He urged the group to “put the focus back on the sacrament of reconciliation” as a space where both confessors and penitents can experience the “unique, definitive and faithful love that God has for every one of his children, a love that never disappoints.”
Every time a priest gives absolution, the pope said, there is “in a certain way a jubilee” that brings joy to the entire church, but “first of all to God himself.”
Quoting the Gospel of Luke, he said, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance” (15:7).
A confessor must ensure that the faithful leave the confessional without the burden of guilt, Pope Francis said, but as one who has been freed by God, ready to “meet their brothers and sisters with a good and willing heart.”