February 13, 2013, Wednesday — Ash Wednesday
“Thus says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Joel 2:12).”—Pope Benedict XVI, citing the Prophet Joel, at his final public Mass as Pope, this evening in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City
After Pope Benedict XVI received ashes on his head this evening from Cardinal Angelo Comastri, archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, he spoke in his Ash Wednesday homily about the need for Christians to be united, and strongly warned against Church divisions.
Some observers took the words as a veiled reference to “infighting” in the Vatican itself.
“The face of the Church is at times disfigured by the sins against the unity of the Church and the divisions of the ecclesial body,” Pope Benedict said, from the pulpit of St. Peter’s Basilica. “I am thinking in particular about sins against the unity of the Church, the divisions in the ecclesial body. Living Lent in a more intense and evident ecclesial communion, overcoming individualism and rivalry, is a humble and precious sign for those who are far from the faith or indifferent.”
One Vatican observer commented: “The Pope’s Ash Wednesday homily underscored the persistent infighting in Church ranks.”
The deep message of the homily is that divisions in the Church scandalize non-Christians. Ending these divisions would therefore be evangelically powerful — an effective sign of the truth of the Gospel.
The Pope himself placed ashes on the heads of several cardinals and a group of Dominican and Benedictine priests.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, his voice filled with emotion, then said: “We wouldn’t be sincere, Your Holiness, if we didn’t say tonight there’s a veil of sadness over our hearts.”
“Thank you for giving us the luminous example of a simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord,” Bertone said, referring to the words Pope Benedict used in his first public statement following his election in 2005.
His voice cracking, Bertone described Benedict as a “laborer who knew at every moment to do what is most important, bring God to men and bring men to God.”
At the end of the Mass, Benedict received a long, emotional ovation from the thousands of faithful who packed the basilica, including dozens of cardinals who removed their miters in a sign of respect to the outgoing pontiff.
The standing ovation lasted more than a minute. It ended when the Pope, looking surprised but not displeased, said: “Grazie (“Thank you”). Let’s return to prayer.”
Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent. By Easter, which falls on March 31, the Church will likely have a new Pope.
The Pope’s Ash Wednesday Homily
Here is the complete text of the Pope’s Ash Wednesday homily, furnished in English translation by the Zenit news agency.
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin a new Lenten journey, a journey that extends for 40 days and leads us to the joy of Easter, the victory of Life over death.
Following the ancient Roman tradition of Lenten stationes, we have gathered for the celebration of the Eucharist. The tradition says that the first statio should take place in the Basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. The circumstances have suggested that we gather in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Tonight we are great in number around the tomb of the Apostle Peter, also to request his intercession for the Church’s journey at this particular time, renewing our faith in the Supreme Pastor, Christ the Lord.
For me it is a good opportunity to thank everyone, especially the faithful of the Diocese of Rome, as I prepare to conclude my Petrine ministry, and ask for a special remembrance in prayer.
The readings that have been proclaimed provide us with ideas that, with the grace of God, we are called to make concrete attitudes and behaviors during this Lent. The Church proposes to us, first, the strong appeal that the prophet Joel addressed to the people of Israel, “Thus says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12).
Please note the phrase “with all my heart,” which means from the center of our thoughts and feelings, from the roots of our decisions, choices and actions, with a gesture of total and radical freedom.
But is this return to God possible?
Yes, because there is a force that does not reside in our hearts, but that emanates from the heart of God. It is the power of his mercy.
The prophet says, further: “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in faithful love, ready to repent of evil” (v. 13).
The return to the Lord is possible as a ‘grace’, because it is the work of God and the fruit of that faith that we place in His mercy.
But this return to God becomes a reality in our lives only when the grace of God penetrates to our inmost being and shakes it, giving us the power to “rend our hearts.”
The same prophet causes these words from God to resonate: “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (v. 13).
In fact, even today, many are ready to “rend their garments” before scandals and injustices — of course, made by others — but few seem willing to act on their own “heart”, on their own conscience and their own intentions, letting the Lord transform, renew and convert.
That “return to me with all your heart,” then, is a reminder that involves not only the individual, but the community.
We have heard, also in the first reading: “Play the horn in Zion, proclaim a solemn fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, convoke a solemn assembly, call the old, gather the children and the infants at the breast; let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her bridal chamber”(vv.15-16).
The community dimension is an essential element in faith and Christian life. Christ came “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (cfr. Jn 11:52). The “we” of the Church is the community in which Jesus brings us together (cf. Jn 12:32): faith is necessarily ecclesial.
And this is important to remember and to live in this time of Lent: each person is aware that he or she does not face the penitential journey alone, but together with many brothers and sisters in the Church.
Finally, the prophet focuses on the prayers of the priests, who, with tears in their eyes, turn to God, saying: “Do not expose your heritage to the reproach and derision of the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’ “(v. 17).
This prayer makes us reflect on the importance of the testimony of faith and Christian life of each of us and our community to show the face of the Church and how that face is sometimes disfigured.
I am thinking in particular about sins against the unity of the Church, the divisions in the ecclesial body.
Living Lent in a more intense and evident ecclesial communion, overcoming individualism and rivalry, is a humble and precious sign for those who are far from the faith or indifferent.
“Behold, now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). The words of the Apostle Paul to the Christians of Corinth resonate for us, too, with an urgency that does not allow omission or inaction.
The word “now” repeated several times says that we cannot let this time pass us by, it is offered to us as a unique opportunity. And the Apostle’s gaze focuses on the sharing that Christ chose to characterize his life, taking on everything human to the point of bearing the very burden of men’s sins.
The phrase St. Paul uses is very strong: “God made him sin for our sake.”
Jesus, the innocent one, the Holy One, “He who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21), bears the burden of sin, sharing with humanity its outcome of death, and death on the cross.
The reconciliation offered to us has cost a high price, that of the cross raised on Golgotha, on which was hung the Son of God made man. In this immersion of God in human suffering and in the abyss of evil lies the root of our justification.
The “return to God with all your heart” in our Lenten journey passes through the cross, following Christ on the road to Calvary, the total gift of self. It is a way on which to learn every day to come out more and more from our selfishness and our closures, to make room for God who opens and transforms the heart.
And St. Paul recalls how the announcement of the Cross resounds to us through the preaching of the Word, of which the Apostle himself is an ambassador; it is a call for us to make this Lenten journey characterized by a more careful and assiduous listening to the Word of God, the light that illuminates our steps.
In the Gospel of Matthew, to which belongs the so-called Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to three fundamental practices required by Mosaic Law: almsgiving, prayer and fasting; they are also traditional indications in the Lenten journey to respond to the invitation to “return to God with all your heart.”
But Jesus emphasizes that it is both the quality and the truth of the relationship with God that determines the authenticity of each religious gesture.
For this reason He denounces religious hypocrisy, the behavior that wants to be seen, attitudes seeking applause and approval.
The true disciple does not serve himself or the “public”, but his Lord, in simplicity and generosity: “And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Mt 6:4.6.18).
Our witness, then, will always be more effective the less we seek our own glory, and we will know that the reward of the righteous is God himself, being united to Him, here below, on the journey of faith, and, at the end of life, in the peace and light of coming face to face with Him forever (cf. 1 Cor 13:12).
Dear brothers and sisters, we begin our Lenten journey, trusting and joyful.
May the invitation to conversion resonate strongly in us, to “return to God with all your heart”, accepting His grace that makes us new men, with the surprising novelty that is sharing in the very life of Jesus.
Let none of us, therefore, be deaf to this appeal, that is addressed to us also in the austere rite, so simple and yet so beautiful, of the imposition of ashes, which we will perform shortly. May the Virgin Mary accompany us in this time, the Mother of the Church and model of every true disciple of the Lord. Amen!
[Original text: Italian]
[Translation for Zenit News Agency by Peter Waymel]
(February 13, 2013) © Innovative Media Inc.
Staying inside Vatican City
Once the Pope steps down, he will be flown by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence on Rome’s outskirts, while the Vatican puts the finishing touches on his future home: a convent within Vatican walls that has recently been renovated by the Pope’s order.
The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, Senior Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, was quoted today as saying: “I think it was a mistake for him to announce that he will be living inside the Vatican. The Vatican belongs to the new Pope, and [Benedict XVI] needs the Pope’s permission to live there.”
But if Benedict remains in the Vatican, he will be able to consult with the new Pope, much as an aged father consults with a son. This physical closeness could be a guarantee of communion and continuity that could not be guaranteed so effectively in any other way.
Wednesday General Audience, complete text
Here is the Pope’s complete address from today General Audience, which I discussed in an earlier newsflash. The essential teaching here is that man should not place himself above God, or attempt to become God:
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin the liturgical time of Lent, 40 days that prepare us for the celebration of Holy Easter, it is a time of particular commitment in our spiritual journey. The number 40 occurs several times in the Bible. In particular, it recalls the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness: a long period of formation to become the people of God, but also a long period in which the temptation to be unfaithful to the covenant with the Lord was always present. Forty were also the days of the Prophet Elijah’s journey to reach the Mount of God, Horeb; as well as the time that Jesus spent in the desert before beginning his public life and where he was tempted by the devil.
In this Catechesis I would like to dwell on this moment of earthly life of the Son of God, which we will read of in the Gospel this Sunday.
First of all, the desert, where Jesus withdrew to, is the place of silence, of poverty, where man is deprived of material support and is placed in front of the fundamental questions of life, where he is pushed to towards the essentials in life and for this very reason it becomes easier for him to find God.
But the desert is also a place of death, because where there is no water there is no life, and it is a place of solitude where man feels temptation more intensely.
Jesus goes into the desert, and there is tempted to leave the path indicated by God the Father to follow other easier and worldly paths (cf. Lk 4:1-13). So he takes on our temptations and carries our misery, to conquer evil and open up the path to God, the path of conversion.
In reflecting on the temptations Jesus is subjected to in the desert we are invited, each one of us, to respond to one fundamental question: what is truly important in our lives?
In the first temptation the devil offers to change a stone into bread to sate Jesus’ hunger. Jesus replies that the man also lives by bread but not by bread alone: without a response to the hunger for truth, hunger for God, man can not be saved (cf. vv. 3-4).
In the second, the devil offers Jesus the path of power: he leads him up on high and gives him dominion over the world, but this is not the path of God: Jesus clearly understands that it is not earthly power that saves the world, but the power of the Cross, humility, love (cf. vv. 5-8).
In the third, the devil suggests Jesus throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple of Jerusalem and be saved by God through his angels, that is, to do something sensational to test God, but the answer is that God is not an object on which to impose our conditions: He is the Lord of all (cf. vv. 9-12).
What is the core of the three temptations that Jesus is subjected to? It is the proposal to exploit God, to use Him for his own interests, for his own glory and success. So, in essence, to put himself in the place of God, removing Him from his own existence and making him seem superfluous. Everyone should then ask: what is the role God in my life? Is He the Lord or am I?
Overcoming the temptation to place God in submission to oneself and one’s own interests or to put Him in a corner and converting oneself to the proper order of priorities, giving God the first place, is a journey that every Christian must undergo.
“Conversion”, an invitation that we will hear many times in Lent, means following Jesus in so that his Gospel is a real life guide, it means allowing God transform us, no longer thinking that we are the only protagonists of our existence, recognizing that we are creatures who depend on God, His love, and that only by “losing” our life in Him can we truly have it.
This means making our choices in the light of the Word of God.
Today we can no longer be Christians as a simple consequence of the fact that we live in a society that has Christian roots: even those born to a Christian family and formed in the faith must, each and every day, renew the choice to be a Christian, to give God first place, before the temptations continuously suggested by a secularized culture, before the criticism of many of our contemporaries.
The tests which modern society subjects Christians to, in fact, are many, and affect the personal and social life. It is not easy to be faithful to Christian marriage, practice mercy in everyday life, leave space for prayer and inner silence, it is not easy to publicly oppose choices that many take for granted, such as abortion in the event of an unwanted pregnancy, euthanasia in case of serious illness, or the selection of embryos to prevent hereditary diseases. The temptation to set aside one’s faith is always present and conversion becomes a response to God which must be confirmed several times throughout one’s life.
The major conversions like that of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, or St. Augustine, are an example and stimulus, but also in our time when the sense of the sacred is eclipsed, God’s grace is at work and works wonders in life of many people.
The Lord never gets tired of knocking at the door of man in social and cultural contexts that seem engulfed by secularization, as was the case for the Russian Orthodox Pavel Florensky. After acompletely agnostic education, to the point he felt an outright hostility towards religious teachings taught in school, the scientist Florensky came to exclaim: “No, you can not live without God,” and to change his life completely, so much so he became a monk.
I also think the figure of Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch woman of Jewish origin who died in Auschwitz. Initially far from God, she found Him looking deep inside herself and wrote: “There is a well very deep inside of me. And God is in that well. Sometimes I can reach Him, more often He is covered by stone and sand: then God is buried. We must dig Him up again “(Diary, 97).
In her scattered and restless life, she finds God in the middle of the great tragedy of the twentieth century, the Shoah. This young fragile and dissatisfied woman, transfigured by faith, becomes a woman full of love and inner peace, able to say: “I live in constant intimacy with God.”
The ability to oppose the ideological blandishments of her time to choose the search for truth and open herself up to the discovery of faith is evidenced by another woman of our time, the American Dorothy Day. In her autobiography, she confesses openly to having given in to the temptation that everything could be solved with politics, adhering to the Marxist proposal: “I wanted to be with the protesters, go to jail, write, influence others and leave my dreams to the world. How much ambition and how much searching for myself in all this!”
The journey towards faith in such a secularized environment was particularly difficult, but Grace acts nonetheless, as she points out: “It is certain that I felt the need to go to church more often, to kneel, to bow my head in prayer. A blind instinct, one might say, because I was not conscious of praying. But I went, I slipped into the atmosphere of prayer…” God guided her to a conscious adherence to the Church, in a lifetime spent dedicated to the underprivileged.
In our time there are no few conversions understood as the return of those who, after a Christian education, perhaps a superficial one, moved away from the faith for years and then rediscovered Christ and his Gospel. In the Book of Revelation we read: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me”(3, 20). Our inner person must prepare to be visited by God, and for this reason we should allow ourselves be invaded by illusions, by appearances, by material things.
In this time of Lent, in the Year of the faith, we renew our commitment to the process of conversion, to overcoming the tendency to close in on ourselves and instead, to making room for God, looking at our daily reality with His eyes.
The alternative between being wrapped up in our egoism and being open to the love of God and others, we could say corresponds to the alternatives to the temptations of Jesus: the alternative, that is, between human power and love of the Cross, between a redemption seen only in material well-being and redemption as the work of God, to whom we give primacy in our lives.
Conversion means not closing in on ourselves in the pursuit of success, prestige, position, but making sure that each and every day, in the small things, truth, faith in God and love become most important.
Below the Holy Father’s summary and greetings in English
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin our yearly Lenten journey of conversion in preparation for Easter.
The 40 days of Lent recall Israel’s sojourn in the desert and the temptations of Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry.
The desert, as the place of silent encounter with God and decision about the deepest meaning and direction of our lives, is also a place of temptation. In his temptation in the desert, Jesus showed us that fidelity to God’s will must guide our lives and thinking, especially amid today’s secularized society.
While the Lord continues to raise up examples of radical conversion, like Pavel Florensky, Etty Hillesum and Dorothy Day, he also constantly challenges those who have been raised in the faith to deeper conversion.
In this Lenten season, Christ once again knocks at our door (cf. Rev 3:20) and invites us to open our minds and hearts to his love and his truth. May Jesus’ example of overcoming temptation inspire us to embrace God’s will and to see all things in the light of his saving truth.
I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking visitors present at today’s Audience, including those from England, Denmark and the United States. My particular greeting goes to the many student groups present. With prayers that this Lenten season will prove spiritually fruitful for you and your families, I invoke upon all of you God’s blessings of joy and peace.