Last year, Pope Benedict XVI led the Church into the season of Lent, and Pope Francis closed it, marking Holy Thursday with a service for young prisoners whose feet were washed by the Church’s first Latin-American pope.
The change of guard at the chair of St. Peter during Lent 2013 has unleashed an explosion of enthusiasm. Catholics, and many other people of goodwill, have celebrated what they see as a renewed emphasis on the need for the faithful to serve the poor and an attendant simplicity of life for Church leaders.
Indeed, in the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday, Francis returned to these themes, reminding Church leaders who would receive their birettas at the consistory on Feb. 22 that they were entering the Church, not a "royal court." Holiness, not power, would be the source of their strength.
But just as ecclesial responsibilities may be at times confused with worldly power, so might a pope’s call for service to the needy and simplicity of life be reduced to party platforms or style points.
Francis has been hailed for his distinctive engagement with "the least of these": the quiet phone calls to those who seek his counsel and his exhortation against complacency in chanceries and parish rectories.
But in his 2014 Lenten message, he made clear that his urgent words and actions were grounded in a Divine source, not a worldly one. And when the Church speaks about poverty, it is concerned with material, moral and spiritual deficits.
In his first Lenten message, Francis quoted St. Paul’s 2 Corinthians 8:8: "For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich."
Francis noted that Paul "was writing to the Christians of Corinth to encourage them to be generous in helping the faithful in Jerusalem who were in need. What do these words of St. Paul mean for us Christians today? What does this invitation to poverty, a life of evangelical poverty, mean to us today?"
In striking terms, Francis has described the Church as a "field hospital" that must care for the spiritual and physical wounds of those in need of healing.
Now, he reminds his flock that our good intentions and five-year pastoral plans will be dust if we do not partake of the wellspring that nourishes a true poverty of spirit — and if we do not follow the path of the Son of God, who became a slave to take on the burden of our sins.
The Gospels show "how God works," the Pope said. "He does not reveal himself cloaked in worldly power and wealth, but, rather, in weakness and poverty."
By sending his only Son into the world, God revealed his desire to be close to us, despite the great cost. He took on the form of a helpless infant. He healed the sick and inspired the deep love of the apostles and his women followers, who wept as he carried the cross up to Golgotha.
By embracing our human poverty, God disclosed something about the nature and power of his love, which he showers on the human creatures made in his image.
Francis described this love as "grace, generosity, a desire to draw near, a love which does not hesitate to offer itself in sacrifice for the beloved."
Indeed, this is the kind of love "that creates equality ... breaks down walls and eliminates distances. God did this with us."
Just prior to stepping down, Pope Benedict issued his Lenten message for 2013. He repeated the theme that helped define his pontificate: Faith nourishes charity, and charity completes our faith. To inspire the work of charity, our faith must be anchored in a deep friendship with Jesus Christ. Programs, projects and platforms won’t sustain the work of service. Christlike love must inspire our good works.
"Faith, which sees the love of God revealed in the pierced heart of Jesus on the cross, gives rise to love. Love is the light — and in the end, the only light — that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working," said Benedict, who described "love, grounded in and shaped by faith," as the "principal distinguishing mark of Christians."
How do we ground our love in faith?
Just as Jesus bore the cross up Golgotha, so "Christian life consists in continuously scaling the mountain to meet God and then coming back down, bearing the love and strength drawn from him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love," said Benedict.
Lent calls on the faithful to make that journey up the mountain, but always with the understanding that we will return replenished and ready to share the graces we have received from prayer, fasting and almsgiving, as well as from the sacraments. We are not called to conserve this spiritual treasure, but to follow the example of Our Lord, by giving it away until we are spent.
As Francis said in his Lenten message, "God did not let our salvation drop down from heaven like someone who gives alms from their abundance out of a sense of altruism and piety."
This Lent, as we pray to have hearts open to those in need, let us follow the path of Christ, who is always close to us.
The Register wishes all its readers a holy Lenten season filled with the love and mercy of the Lord.