In what follows, I am excerpting the annual message of the Holy Fathers for Lent, this time as presented by Pope Francis, with the Scriptural theme “Because of the increase of iniquity, the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). I will offer several expansions and comments of my own (they’ll be clearly marked!), but fundamentally, this will be the thoughts and words of the Pope.
Saying that the context for Jesus’ statement is the end of His life, entering Jerusalem, Pope Francis observes that Jesus also speaks of great trials and false prophets to lead people astray. Then he wants to “try to understand the guise which such false prophets can assume.”
He refers to some as “‘snake charmers’, who manipulate human emotions in order to enslave others…by momentary pleasures, mistaking them for true happiness!” Some can also be “‘charlatans’, who offer easy and immediate solutions to suffering that soon prove utterly useless….These swindlers, in peddling things that have no real value, rob people of all that is most precious: dignity, freedom, and the ability to love.” To avoid the traps these false prophets set, the Holy Father insists, “We must learn to look closely, beneath the surface, and to recognize what leaves a good and lasting mark on our hearts, because it comes from God and is truly for our benefit.” He is in fact referring to St Ignatius Loyola’s practices of consciousness examen and of discernment. After all, he is a Jesuit!
That being the case, he wants us to be aware of the “signs that indicate that our love is beginning to cool.” He describes a process of destruction of love that begins with greed, leads to rejection of God and His peace: “…we prefer our own desolation rather than the comfort found in his word and the sacraments.” This ultimately produces a climate of violence against those who (to our mind) stand in our way. Can we really prefer our own desolation (sadness, wrath) to God’s consolation? Unfortunately, we can and we do. Francis referred to the vision of Satan in the bottom ring of hell in Dante’s Inferno; I think another quote from Dante is illustrative here: “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” Its symptoms are terms familiar to all those who read the Pope: “spiritual sloth, sterile pessimism, the temptation to self-absorption, constant warring among ourselves, and the worldly mentality that makes us concerned only for appearances…”
The Holy Father sees the Lenten disciplines of prayer, almsgiving and fasting as a “soothing remedy” for this wretched state of being. Prayer, he writes, enables us “to root out our secret lies and forms of self-deception, and then to find the consolation God offers.” “Almsgiving sets us free from greed and helps us regard our neighbor as a brother or sister. What I possess is never mine alone. How I would like almsgiving to become a genuine style of life for each one of us! …[to] see in the sharing of our possessions a tangible witness of the communion that is ours in the Church!” Finally, in reflecting on fasting, he writes that this is something that “…weakens our tendency to violence…[allowing] us to experience what the destitute and the starving have to endure.” It also “…expresses our own spiritual hunger and thirst for life in God. Fasting wakes us up.”
Pope Francis concludes with an appeal for dioceses again to participate in “24 hours for the Lord”—a full day of Eucharistic Adoration and opportunity for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, from Friday of 9 March through Saturday of 10 March, in the hope that “‘…the light of Christ
rising in glory [will] dispel the darkness from our hearts and minds,’ as the Easter Vigil’s Exultet joyfully sings. His prayer is that our hearts will not only not grow cold, but they will be set on fire by the Holy Spirit—to burn brightly enough to bring light and warmth to a cold and dark world. Are we ready to be set on fire?