Ash Wednesday begins the Christian season of Lent with a call to repentance (turning), and it is custom for many Christians, and not only Roman Catholics, to give up something for Lent as a personal sacrifice. Pope Francis has questioned the worth of sacrifice that provides no benefit for others, echoing the message of Isaiah chapter 58.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (NRSV)
At the heart of the Pope’s Ash Wednesday message is his call to give up for Lent (and for life) what we most need to give up: indifference toward other people and toward God. Evil (harm) comes from lack of empathy with others. Before we kill (actively or passively, literally or economically, physically or spiritually), we first devalue and dehumanize the intended victims. Francis is calling us to the very heart of the gospel where we will find the truest turning (repentance). Of course, it’s easier to give up, say, chocolate, but what good does that do for anyone else, and how does it truly turn a person around in life? To give up indifference (no easy process) is to grow toward our humanity as it was created to become.
I saw in Facebook comments on the Pope’s message affirmations of his popularity with predictable “if only” reservations on important issues: ordination of women, reproductive rights, etc. The Pope is not at liberty to contradict the church’s canon law and remain Pope. One comment noted that Francis is open-minded and so might be persuaded to change his mind on such issues, but it’s not about changing his mind. He cannot change canon law and so must operate within its parameters. A whole lot more than the Pope’s mind would have to be changed before the Catholic Church’s position on issues such as reproductive rights could be reversed or even modernized.
Francis has, however, called all who regard his voice, Catholic or not, to move toward the great change: moving from indifference toward empathy. That repentance is huge, a true turnaround. In making it, we move from sin (alienation) toward humanity, but it is the task of a lifetime not a season. Still, every change must make a start somewhere, sometime, even if only with serious pursuit of a simple question: How can I do that?