Pope Benedict XVI's Message
(2 Cor 8, 9) - in Croatian, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish & Swedish
"Christ made Himself poor for you"
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
1. Each year, Lent offers us a providential opportunity to deepen the meaning and value of our Christian lives, and it stimulates us to rediscover the mercy of God so that we, in turn, become more merciful toward our brothers. In the lenten period, the Church makes it her duty to propose some specific tasks that accompany the faithful concretely in this process of interior renewal: these are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. For this year’s Lenten Message, I wish to spend some time reflecting on the practice of almsgiving, which represents a specific way to assist those in need and, at the same time, an exercise in self-denial to free us from attachment to worldly goods. The force of attraction to material riches and just how categorical our decision must be not to make of them an idol, Jesus confirms in a resolute way: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Lk 16,13). Almsgiving helps us to overcome this constant temptation, teaching us to respond to our neighbour’s needs and to share with others whatever we possess through divine goodness. This is the aim of the special collections in favour of the poor, which are promoted during Lent in many parts of the world. In this way, inward cleansing is accompanied by a gesture of ecclesial communion, mirroring what already took place in the early Church. In his letters, St Paul speaks of this in regard to the collection for the Jerusalem community.
2. According to the teaching of the Gospel, we are not owners but rather administrators of the goods we possess: these, then, are not to be considered as our exclusive possession, but means through which the Lord calls each one of us to act as a steward of His providence for our neighbour. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, material goods bear a social value, according to the principle of their universal destination (cf n 2404).
In the Gospel, Jesus explicitly admonishes the one who possesses and uses earthly riches only for self. In the face of the multitudes, who, lacking everything, suffer hunger, the words of St John acquire the tone of a ringing rebuke: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (1 Jn 3,17). In those countries whose population is majority Christian, the call to share is even more urgent, since their responsibility toward the many who suffer poverty and abandonment is even greater. To come to their aid is a duty of justice even prior to being an act of charity.
3. The Gospel highlights a typical feature of Christian almsgiving: it must be hidden: “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” Jesus asserts, “so that your alms may be done in secret” (Mt 6,3-4). Just a short while before, He said not to boast of one’s own good works so as not to risk being deprived of the heavenly reward. The disciple is to be concerned with God’s greater glory. Jesus warns: “In this way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mt 5,16). Everything, then, must be done for God’s glory and not our own. This understanding, dear brothers and sisters, must accompany every gesture of help to our neighbour, avoiding that it becomes a means to make ourselves the centre of attention. If, in accomplishing a good deed, we do not have as our goal God’s glory and the real well being of our brothers, looking rather for a return of personal interest or simply of applause, we place ourselves outside of the Gospel vision. In today’s world of images, attentive vigilance is required, since this temptation is great. Almsgiving, according to the Gospel, is not mere philanthropy: rather it is a concrete expression of charity, a theological virtue that demands interior conversion to love of God and neighbour, in imitation of Jesus Christ who, dying on the cross, gave His entire self for us. How could we not thank God for the many people who silently, far from the gaze of the media world, fulfill with this spirit generous actions in support of their neighbour in difficulty? There is little use in giving one’s personal goods to others if it leads to a heart puffed up in vainglory: for this reason, the one who knows that God “sees in secret” and in secret will reward does not seek human recognition for works of mercy.
4. In inviting us to consider almsgiving with a more profound gaze that transcends the purely material dimension, Scripture teaches us that there is more joy in giving than in receiving (cf Acts 20,35). When we do things out of love, we express the truth of our being; indeed, we have been created not for ourselves but for God and our brothers (cf 2 Cor 5,15). Every time when, for love of God, we share our goods with our neighbour in need, we discover that the fullness of life comes from love and all is returned to us as a blessing in the form of peace, inner satisfaction and joy. Our Father in heaven rewards our almsgiving with His joy. What is more, St Peter includes among the spiritual fruits of almsgiving the forgiveness of sins: “Charity,” he writes, “covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pt 4,8). As the lenten liturgy frequently repeats, God offers to us sinners the possibility of being forgiven. The fact of sharing with the poor what we possess disposes us to receive such a gift. In this moment, my thought turns to those who realize the weight of the evil they have committed and, precisely for this reason, feel far from God, fearful and almost incapable of turning to Him. By drawing close to others through almsgiving, we draw close to God; it can become an instrument for authentic conversion and reconciliation with Him and our brothers.
5. Almsgiving teaches us the generosity of love. St Joseph Benedict Cottolengo forthrightly recommends: “Never keep an account of the coins you give, since this is what I always say: if, in giving alms, the left hand is not to know what the right hand is doing, then the right hand, too, should not know what it does itself.” In this regard, all the more significant is the Gospel story of the widow who, out of her poverty, cast into the Temple treasury “all she had to live on” (Mk 12,44). Her tiny and insignificant coin becomes an eloquent symbol: this widow gives to God not out of her abundance, not so much what she has, but what she is. Her entire self.
We find this moving passage inserted in the description of the days that immediately precede the passion and death of Jesus who, as St Paul writes, made Himself poor to enrich us out of His poverty (cf 2 Cor 8,9); He gave His entire self for us. Lent, also through the practice of almsgiving, inspires us to follow His example. In His school, we can learn to make of our lives a total gift; imitating Him, we are able to make ourselves available, not so much in giving a part of what we possess, but our very selves. Cannot the entire Gospel be summarized perhaps in the one commandment of love? The Lenten practice of almsgiving thus becomes a means to deepen our Christian vocation. In gratuitously offering himself, the Christian bears witness that it is love and not material richness that determines the laws of his existence. Love, then, gives almsgiving its value; it inspires various forms of giving, according to the possibilities and conditions of each person.
6. Dear brothers and sisters, Lent invites us to “train ourselves” spiritually, also through the practice of almsgiving, in order to grow in charity and recognize in the poor Christ Himself. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that the Apostle Peter said to the cripple who was begging alms at the Temple gate: “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, walk” (Acts 3,6). In giving alms, we offer something material, a sign of the greater gift that we can impart to others through the announcement and witness of Christ, in whose name is found true life. Let this time, then, be marked by a personal and community effort of attachment to Christ in order that we may be witnesses of His love. May Mary, Mother and faithful Servant of the Lord, help believers to enter the “spiritual battle” of Lent, armed with prayer, fasting and the practice of almsgiving, so as to arrive at the celebration of the Easter Feasts renewed in spirit. With these wishes, I willingly impart to all my Apostolic Blessing.
From the Vatican, 30 October 2007
BENEDICTUS PP. XVI
Papa Benedetto's Homily at Holy Mass on Ash Wednesday
at the Basilica of St Sabina on the Aventine Hill
- in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
If Advent is the season par excellence that invites us to hope in the God-Who-Comes, Lent renews in us the hope in the One who made us pass from death to life. Both are seasons of purification - this is also indicated by the liturgical colour that they have in common - but in a special way Lent, fully oriented to the mystery of Redemption, is defined the "path of true conversion". At the beginning of our penitential journey, I would like to pause briefly to reflect on prayer and suffering as qualifying aspects of the liturgical season of Lent, whereas I dedicated the Message for Lent, published last week, to the practice of almsgiving. In the encyclical Spe Salvi, I identified prayer and suffering, together with action and judgement, as "'settings' for learning and practising hope". We can thus affirm that precisely because the lenten season is an invitation to prayer, penance and fasting, it affords a providential opportunity to enliven and strengthen our hope.
Prayer nourishes hope because nothing expresses the reality of God in our life better than praying with faith. Even in the loneliness of the most severe trial, nothing and no one can prevent me from addressing the Father "in the secret" of my heart, where he alone "sees", as Jesus says in the Gospel (cf Mt 6: 4, 6, 18). Two moments of Jesus' earthly existence come to mind. One is at the beginning and the other almost at the end of his public ministry: the 40 days in the desert, on which the season of Lent is based, and the agony in Gethsemane - are both essentially moments of prayer. Prayer alone with the Father face to face in the desert; prayer filled with "mortal anguish" in the Garden of Olives. Yet in both these circumstances it is by praying that Christ unmasks the wiles of the tempter and defeats him. Thus, prayer proves to be the first and principal "weapon" with which to win the victory "in our struggle against the spirit of evil".
Christ's prayer reaches its culmination on the Cross. It is expressed in those last words which the evangelists have recorded. Where he seems to utter a cry of despair: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt 27: 46; Mk 15: 34; cf Ps 22: 1), Christ was actually making his own the invocation of someone beset by enemies with no escape, who has no one other than God to turn to and, over and above any human possibilities, experiences his grace and salvation. With these words of the Psalm, first of a man who is suffering, then of the People of God in their suffering, caused by God's apparent absence, Jesus made his own this cry of humanity that suffers from God's apparent absence, and carried this cry to the Father's heart. So, by praying in this ultimate solitude together with the whole of humanity, he opens the Heart of God to us. There is no contradiction between these words in Psalm 22 and the words full of filial trust: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Lk 23: 46; cf. Ps 31: 5). These words, also taken from Psalm 31, are the dramatic imploration of a person who, abandoned by all, is sure he can entrust himself to God. The prayer of supplication full of hope is consequently the leitmotif of Lent and enables us to experience God as the only anchor of salvation. Indeed when it is collective, the prayer of the People of God is a voice of one heart and soul, it is a "heart to heart" dialogue, like Queen Esther's moving plea when her people were about to be exterminated: "O my Lord, you only are our King; help me, who am alone and have no helper but you" (Est 14: 3)... for a great danger overshadows me. In the face of a "great danger" greater hope is needed: only the hope that can count on God.
Prayer is a crucible in which our expectations and aspirations are exposed to the light of God's Word, immersed in dialogue with the One who is the Truth, and from which they emerge free from hidden lies and compromises with various forms of selfishness (cf Spe Salvi, n 33). Without the dimension of prayer, the human "I" ends by withdrawing into himself, and the conscience, which should be an echo of God's voice, risks being reduced to a mirror of the self, so that the inner conversation becomes a monologue, giving rise to self-justifications by the thousands. Therefore, prayer is a guarantee of openness to others: whoever frees himself for God and his needs simultaneously opens himself to the other, to the brother who knocks at the door of his heart and asks to be heard, asks for attention, forgiveness, at times correction, but always in fraternal charity. True prayer is never self-centred, it is always centred on the other. As such, it opens the person praying to the "ecstasy" of charity, to the capacity to go out of oneself to draw close to the other in humble, neighbourly service. True prayer is the driving force of the world since it keeps it open to God. For this reason without prayer there is no hope but only illusion. In fact, it is not God's presence that alienates man but his absence: without the true God, Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, illusory hopes become an invitation to escape from reality. Speaking with God, dwelling in his presence, letting oneself be illuminated and purified by his Word introduces us, instead, into the heart of reality, into the very motor of becoming cosmic; it introduces us, so to speak, to the beating heart of the universe.
In a harmonious connection with prayer, fasting and almsgiving can also be considered occasions for learning and practising Christian hope. The Fathers and ancient writers liked to emphasize that these three dimensions of Gospel life are inseparable, reciprocally enrich each other and bear more fruit the more they collaborate with each other. Lent as a whole, thanks to the joint action of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, forms Christians to be men and women of hope following the example of the saints.
I would now like to pause briefly on the aspect of suffering since, as I wrote in the encyclical Spe Salvi: "The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society" (38). Easter, to which Lent is oriented, is the mystery which gives meaning to human suffering, based on the superabundant com-passion of God, brought about in Jesus Christ. The lenten journey therefore, since it is wholly steeped in Easter light, makes us relive what happened in Christ's divine and human Heart while he was going up to Jerusalem for the last time to offer himself in expiation. Suffering and death fell like darkness as he gradually came nearer to the Cross, but the flame of love shone brighter. Indeed, Christ's suffering was penetrated by the light of love: it was the Father's love that permitted the Son to confidently face his last "baptism", which he himself defines as the apex of his mission (cf Lk 12: 50). Jesus received that baptism of sorrow and love for us, for all of humanity. He has suffered for truth and justice, bringing the Gospel of suffering to human history, which is the other aspect of the Gospel of love. God cannot suffer, but he can and wants to be com-passionate. Through Christ's passion he can bring his con-solatio to every human suffering, "the consolation of God's compassionate love - and so the star of hope rises" (Spe Salvi, 39).
As for prayer, so for suffering: the history of the Church is very rich in witnesses who spent themselves for others without reserve, at the cost of harsh suffering. The greater the hope that enlivens us, the greater is the ability within us to suffer for the love of truth and good, joyfully offering up the minor and major daily hardships and inserting them into Christ's great com-passion. May Mary who, together with that of her Son, had her immaculate Heart pierced by the sword of sorrow, help us on this journey of evangelical perfection. In these very days, while commemorating the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady at Lourdes we are prompted to meditate on the mystery of Mary's sharing in humanity's suffering; at the same time, we are encouraged to draw consolation from the Church's "treasury of compassion" to which she contributed more than any other creature. Therefore, let us begin Lent in spiritual union with Mary who "advanced in her pilgrimage of faith" following her Son (cf Lumen Gentium, 58) and always goes before the disciples on the journey towards the light of Easter. Amen!"
Papa Benedetto's Catechesis on Ash Wednesday
General Audience, 6 February 2008 - in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today, Ash Wednesday, we are taking up our lenten journey, as we do every year, motivated by a more intense spirit of prayer and reflection, penance and fasting. We are entering a "strong" liturgical season which, while we prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter - the heart and centre of the liturgical year and of our entire existence - invites us, indeed we might say challenges us, to impress a more decisive impetus upon our Christian existence. The reason is that our commitments, anxieties and preoccupations cause us to relapse into habit, exposing us to the risk of forgetting what an extraordinary adventure Jesus has involved us in. We need to begin our demanding journey of evangelical life every day anew, re-entering ourselves by pausing for restorative thought. With the ancient rite of the imposition of ashes, the Church ushers us into Lent as if into a long spiritual retreat that lasts for 40 days.
So let us enter the Lenten atmosphere which helps us to rediscover the gift of faith received with Baptism and impels us to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation, putting our commitment to conversion under the banner of divine mercy. In the primitive Church at the outset Lent was the privileged time for preparing catechumens to receive the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, which were celebrated at the Easter Vigil. Lent was considered as the period in which to become a Christian, which was not brought about in an instant but required a long journey of conversion and renewal. The baptized also joined in this preparation, reviving the memory of the Sacrament they had received with renewed communion with Christ, available to them at the joyful celebration of Easter. Thus, Lent had and still has today preserved the character of a baptismal process in the sense that it helps keep alive the awareness that being Christians is always achieved by becoming Christians over and over again: it is never a story that is over once and for all but rather a journey which requires us to start out constantly anew.
As he places the ashes on the person's forehead the celebrant says "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (cf Gn 3: 19), or he repeats Jesus' exhortation "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" (cf Mk 1: 15). Both formulas are a reminder of the truth about human life: we are limited creatures, sinners always in need of repentance and conversion. How important it is to listen to and accept this reminder in our time! When contemporary man proclaims his total autonomy from God, he enslaves himself and often finds himself in comfortless loneliness. The invitation to conversion, therefore, is an incentive to return to the embrace of God, the tender and merciful Father, to entrust oneself to him, to entrust oneself to him as adoptive sons, regenerated by his love. With wise pedagogy the Church repeats that conversion is first and foremost a grace, a gift that opens the heart to God's infinite goodness. He himself anticipates with his grace our desire for conversion and accompanies our efforts for full adherence to his saving will. Therefore, to convert is to let oneself be won over by Jesus and "to return" with him to the Father.
Conversion thus entails placing oneself humbly at the school of Jesus and walking meekly in his footsteps. In this regard the words with which he himself points out the conditions for being his true disciples are enlightening. After affirming: "Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel's will save it", he adds: "For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" (Mk 8: 35-36). To what extent does a life that is totally spent in achieving success, longing for prestige and seeking commodities to the point of excluding God from one's horizon, truly lead to happiness? Can true happiness exist when God is left out of consideration? Experience shows that we are not happy because our material expectations and needs are satisfied. In fact, the only joy that fills the human heart is that which comes from God: indeed, we stand in need of infinite joy. Neither daily concerns nor life's difficulties succeed in extinguishing the joy that is born from friendship with God. Jesus' invitation to take up one's cross and follow him may at first sight seem harsh and contrary to what we hope for, mortifying our desire for personal fulfilment. At a closer look, however, we discover that it is not like this: the witness of the saints shows that in the Cross of Christ, in the love that is given, in renouncing the possession of oneself, one finds that deep serenity which is the source of generous dedication to our brethren, especially to the poor and the needy, and this also gives us joy. The lenten journey of conversion on which we are setting out today together with the entire Church thus becomes a favourable opportunity, "the acceptable time" (II Cor 6: 2) for renewing our filial abandonment in the hands of God and for putting into practice what Jesus continues to repeat to us: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mk 8: 34) and this is how one ventures forth on the path of love and true happiness.
In the lenten season the Church, echoing the Gospel, proposes some specific tasks that accompany the faithful in this process of inner renewal: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In the Message for Lent this year, I wished to dwell "on the practice of almsgiving, which represents a specific way to assist those in need and, at the same time, an exercise in self-denial to free us from attachment to worldly goods". We know how the aspect of material riches unfortunately pervades modern society in depth. As disciples of Jesus Christ we are called not to idolize earthly goods, but to use them as a means to live and to help others who are in need. By pointing out to us the practice of almsgiving, the Church teaches us to meet our neighbour's needs, in the imitation of Jesus who, as St Paul observed, made himself poor to enrich us with his poverty (cf II Cor 8: 9). "In his school", I also wrote in the Message quoted, "we can learn to make of our lives a total gift; imitating him, we are able to make ourselves available, not so much in giving a part of what we possess, but our very selves". And I continued, "Cannot the entire Gospel be summarized perhaps in the one commandment of love? The Lenten practice of almsgiving thus becomes a means to deepen our Christian vocation. "In freely offering himself, the Christian bears witness that it is love and not material richness that determines the laws of his existence."
Dear brothers and sisters, let us ask Our Lady, Mother of God and of the Church, to accompany us on our way through Lent, so that it may be a journey of true conversion. May we let ourselves be led by her, and inwardly renewed we will arrive at the celebration of the great mystery of Christ's Pasch, the supreme revelation of God's merciful love.
I wish you all a good Lent!"
© Copyright 2008 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana