It’s time to start preparing for Lent — Ash Wednesday falls this year on Feb. 25.

Pope Benedict XVI’s Lenten Message for 2009 was introduced today at a Vatican press conference by Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, president of the Pope’s charity, Cor Unum.

The message highlights the importance of fasting from food and detaching from material goods in order to open one’s heart to God and love of neighbors in need.

“Freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin,” the Pope wrote in the message.

The Holy Father added that “fasting is an aid to open our eyes to the situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live.”

The title of the message, “He fasted for forty days and forty nights and afterwards he was hungry,” is taken from the Gospel of Matthew.

Speaking to the Register today, Cardinal Cordes stressed that the theme of this year’s Lenten Message was chosen to help provide a Christian “foundation” to material charity.

It’s important, Cardinal Cordes said, to underline the material aspects of human misery and the imperative to contribute money to alleviate this suffering. But it would be “very superficial if the significance of, and preparations for, Easter were limited to an appeal for funds,” he said.

That’s why the “spiritual aspect” of fasting is emphasized in this year’s Lenten Message, through which the Pope “does not simply wish to add another initiative to the many humanitarian initiatives of our day,” Cardinal Cordes said.

At the same time, Catholics should contribute what they save or renounce during Lent to what is “good and useful,” the cardinal said, and this act of giving “must have a Christian meaning.”

Said Cardinal Cordes, “Restraining one’s own self must leave space for giving to God because, in the final analysis, only he is the happiness we seek.”

Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N.’s World Food Program, also addressed today’s press conference. Stating that “hunger is on the march worldwide,” Sheeran urged Catholics to be Good Samaritans and help the billion malnourished people in the world who have no recourse to family support or to state welfare programs to provide them with food.

“Sometimes I call WFP the ‘FedEx’ to the bottom billion because there are no pipelines to meet some of those in need,” Sheeran said. “So we have thousands of planes, helicopters, trains and ships, camels, donkeys and elephants at our disposal if we have to go up an isolated mountain or through an earthquake.”

Speaking to the Register after the press conference, Sheeran said the fight against hunger is non-partisan and touches every faith.

She explained that while the WFP is a U.N. agency, it is funded by voluntary donors, not the U.N. And she noted that 93% of all of the organization’s revenues go to making sure food is in the hands of a child.

“Our record is very transparent in this regard,” Sheeran said. “As little as one dollar can change a child’s life for a week.”

— Edward Pentin