BISHOP JAMES SCHUERMAN
When I was a seminarian preparing for priesthood, I had the opportunity to study theology in Innsbruck, Austria. Along with seminarians from all over the world, I lived in a seminary called the “Collegium Canisianum” and took classes at the University of Innsbruck.
Each year, the seminary community went on a weeklong retreat, usually during the Lenten season. One year, the retreat took place near the Brenner Pass. The retreat director was a wise and holy priest who encouraged us to focus on conversion, reconciliation and renewed trust in God. When the retreat ended, one of the seminarians, an Austrian named Michael, asked me if I would like to hike back to Innsbruck instead of taking the train. I think he wanted a little time to process the retreat, and thought hiking would be more conducive to that end than taking a quick train trip back to the seminary. It was a beautiful day in early spring. There was still some snow on the ground, and the sun was shining brightly. I replied, “Yes, let’s go!” It turned out to be one of the most memorable journeys of my life. It was a seven-hour hike along train tracks, through villages, over hills, through valleys and along streams. It was a wonderful conclusion to a prayerful retreat, a journey marked by good conversation as well as some silence, invigorating exercise, and the sights and sounds of nature.
We use the word “journey” to describe going from a starting place to a destination, with senses tuned to the environment and the movement, and hearts filled with expectation. A journey could be a trip to a favorite vacation spot, or a pilgrimage to a holy site. The length of the journey can help us to focus our minds and hearts on the destination.
We often refer to the Lenten season as a journey. In his “Lenten Message 2019,” Pope Francis writes that we are journeying “towards the fulfillment of the salvation we have already received as a result of Christ’s paschal mystery.” During this Lenten Season, this journey of conversion, Pope Francis gives us a reflection on three themes reflected in the subtitles of his message: “The Redemption of Creation;” “The Destructive Power of Sin;” and “The Healing Power of Repentance and Forgiveness.”
1.) The Redemption of Creation. By his passion, death and resurrection, Jesus has won for us new life. Pope Francis writes that the celebration of the Triduum, the passion, death and resurrection of Christ is “the culmination of the liturgical year.” This celebration calls us to undertake a preparation, the Lenten journey, with an awareness that our being conformed to Christ is a great gift of God’s mercy. Christ calls us to live as a redeemed people, as children of God, led by the Holy Spirit and following God’s law.
2.) The Destructive Power of Sin. Christ redeemed the world, reestablishing us as God’s own people, but sin threatens that relationship. Sin is failing to live as children of God. When that happens, we act destructively toward other people, other creatures and ourselves. We begin to yield to unrestrained desires without giving a thought to God or to the future. Sin disrupts communion with God, with others and with creation. When the law of love is forsaken, writes Pope Francis, “then the law of the strong over the weak takes over.” Sin shows itself in greed, “unbridled pursuit of comfort, and lack of concern for the good of others and even of oneself.” Sin leads to “the exploitation of creation, both persons and the environment.” Sin gains the upper hand unless we direct ourselves constantly toward Easter, that is, the mystery of the resurrection.
3.) The Healing Power of Repentance and Forgiveness. Forgiveness involves the removal of the obstacles that get in the way of intimacy with God and others. Forgiveness is understood in the context of reconciliation with God, others, all creation and ourselves. Recognizing God’s love sheds light on our human condition. It is a condition of alienation from God, our neighbor and ourselves. The experience of God’s love helps us to see how far we have been from God, our neighbor, all creation and ourselves. Moreover, it helps us to see how God’s grace has overcome that distance.
Pope Francis reminds us that the journey to Easter is a process of renewal through repentance, conversion, and forgiveness, in order “to live fully the abundant grace of the paschal mystery.” Lent reminds us that our journey through life is a journey of conversion. The Lenten journey invites us to enter more deeply into the paschal mystery and embody it in our lives, especially by the practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
With an eye to deepening our understanding of these Lenten practices, Pope Francis explains that fasting involves “learning to change our attitude towards others and all of creation, turning away from the temptation to ‘devour’ everything to satisfy our voracity and being ready to suffer for love, which can fill the emptiness of our hearts.” Prayer teaches us to “abandon idolatry” and our false sense of self-sufficiency. In prayer, we acknowledge our need for God and his mercy. Almsgiving helps us to escape from the madness “of hoarding everything for ourselves” without giving a thought to the needs of those around us. Almsgiving means sharing of what we have with those in need. By means of these disciplines, we rediscover “God’s plan for creation and for each of us, which is to love him, our brothers and sisters, and the entire world, and to find in this love true happiness.”
Pope Francis encourages us to enter into this Lenten journey in such a way that it bring the hope of Christ to creation, that it may be “set free from slavery to corruption and share the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21) The journey of Lent is a journey to freedom, life and love in the transforming power of the Risen Lord.