Pope Francis on Ash Wednesday


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?

Hearing the Pope Voice My Fear


Here is what I consider an important message of concern from the new Pope:  we have developed a disposable culture and are in danger of throwing away a generation of our own young, our children and grandchildren.  This very concern has been building up like steam under pressure within me for years, as school children have become “units” and employees have become “human resources” and “human capital,” as the unemployed are written off as losers not to be hired and the retired fill even the low-level jobs that might at least keep the kids afloat for a while.  Every time some restaurant or movie theater offers me a senior citizen discount, I recoil inside thinking, “I don’t need that!  Why are you pandering to me?  I have a pension and Social Security as well as personal savings, and I have supplemental coverage to Medicare.  And my wife and I own a home (admittedly with a mortgage).  And she has a pension, too.”  Of course, I say none of this to the ticket seller (usually a kid) or the woman at the cash register who are doing only as they have been told.

Are we wealthy?  No, we’re not.  Well, compared to the more than 800 million people who live on less than the equivalent of 99 cents a day, then yes, we’re filthy rich people who can afford to waste what they’ll never even have or likely dream of having, but within our own immediate context, we are far from wealthy.  In our little world, investment trollers want to talk with the person who has a portfolio of at least half a million.

The theologian Jürgen Moltmann warns of the consequences of our lack of generational responsibility (On Human Dignity), and now I’m happy to hear Pope Francis sharing the same kind of concern.  If only we would listen before it’s too late.