Letter from the Pastor – February 17
Once again Lent is upon us and our Church invites, along with the Lord, to “come away for awhile by ourselves and pray.” We begin Lent with the spectacle of Ash Wednesday, complete with its external sign announcing to the world the Lent is here. I was amused while watching a discussion on MSNBC on Wednesday to see that 3 of the 5 people involved in the discussion sported ashes on the forehead. As is typical all over the Church, we saw about twice as many people at our Wednesday liturgies than we see on any given Sunday (including Easter). That external sign is important to a great many people. But we know, even from the Scriptures of Ash Wednesday, that the work of Lent is INTERNAL work, not external. We are reminded that the truly contrite will “rend their hearts, not their garments” (Joel 2). That outward displays of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting have less spiritual value than those exercises done in the secret of our relationship with the Father (Matthew 6). Psalm 51 reminds us: “For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it; a burnt offering you would not accept. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.” What ever our individual commitments this Lent, the real commitment for all of us must be to prepare hearts more contrite and acceptable to the Lord. Whatever I have “given up for Lent,” or whatever discipline or spiritual exercise I have taken on for these 40 days, should provide some opportunity for reflection and spiritual insight to lead my heart closer to the Lord. This will mean that, when we come to the Resurrection celebration, I will have the offering of a new heart to make to the Lord as my Easter offering.
World circumstances have provided the opportunity for some extra prayer this Lent. On Monday, Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world by his announcement that he would, in effect, retire from active ministry. I have been edified by the general response from all but the most cynical of quarters, to this announcement: that this is a remarkable act of self-sacrifice and humility; he has offered all that he has to give at this point and for the good of the Church he will step aside so that a younger, more healthy, and more able man can fill the Chair of St. Peter. It is hard for any of us to imagine the kind of burdens the Papacy places on the shoulders of any man. Pope Benedict was already 78 when he assumed office and these 8 years have taken a visible toll on him. This Lent we are invited to pray for him as he leaves office. We are invited to prayer for the Church and her leadership as we navigate new waters in figuring out what it means to have a reigning Pope and a retired Pope at the same time (I think that this is a non-issue, but a lot of people seemed to be concerned about it. I have faith in us that we will figure it out). We have the opportunity to pray for the direction of the Holy Spirit on the conclave that will gather in March to elect a new Pope. In all, this unprecedented-in-modern-times event certainly has made for interesting discussion for the last week, and will make for interesting times ahead.