Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On the Lenten Journey
"A Spiritual Retreat That Lasts 40 Days"
H.H. Benedict XVI
February 6, 2008
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin again our Lenten journey as we do every
year, with a more intense spirit of prayer and reflection, of penance
and of fasting. We are entering into a very "intense" liturgical season
that, while preparing us for the celebration of Easter -- the heart of
the Church calendar and of our very existence -- invites us, or we could
say, provokes us, to push forward in our Christian lives.
Since our commitments and our worries keep us living the same routine,
putting us at risk of forgetting just how extraordinary this adventure
is that Christ has involved us in, we need to begin again each day with
the demanding itinerary of evangelical life, retreating within ourselves
through moments of reflection that regenerate our spirit. With the
ancient ritual of the imposition of the ashes, the Church introduces
Lent as a spiritual retreat that lasts 40 days.
In this way we enter into the atmosphere of Lent, which helps us
rediscover the gift of faith received at baptism and which encourages us
to approach the sacrament of reconciliation, placing our commitment to
conversion under the symbol of divine mercy. Originally in the early
Church, Lent was a privileged time given to those catechumens preparing
for the sacrament of baptism and of the Eucharist, which were celebrated
during the Easter Vigil. Lent was considered a time in which one became
Christian, but this did not happen in a single moment. It is a long
journey of conversion and renewal.
Those who had already been baptized joined with them in this journey
remembering the sacrament they had received and prepared to join again
with Christ in the joyous celebration of Easter. In this way, Easter had
and still retains today the feeling and character of a baptism, in the
sense that it keeps alive the understanding that being a Christian is
never a journey's end that is behind us, but a path that constantly
demands renewed effort.
Upon placing ashes on the faithful, the celebrant says: "Remember that
you are dust and to dust you shall return" (cf. Genesis 3:19), or he
repeats Jesus' exhortation: "Convert and believe in the Gospel" (cf.
Mark 1:15). Both practices recall the truth of human existence: We are
limited creatures, sinners constantly in need of penitence and
conversion. How important it is in our day and age to listen and welcome
such a call! When proclaiming his independence from God, the
contemporary man becomes his own slave and often finds himself
inconsolably alone. The invitation to convert is therefore a spur to
return to the arms of God, caring and merciful Father, to trust him, to
entrust oneself to him like adopted children, regenerated by his love.
Teaching with wisdom the Church reiterates that conversion is above all
a grace, a gift that opens the heart to God's infinite love. Through his
grace he anticipates our desire for conversion and supports our efforts
toward full adherence to his saving will. To convert means to let Jesus
win our hearts (cf. Philippians 3:12) and "to return" with him to the
Conversion therefore means to give oneself to the teachings of Jesus and
to obediently follow in his footprints. The words he uses to explain how
to be his true disciples are enlightening. After affirming that "he who
wants to save his own life will lose it; but he who will lose his own
life for me and the Gospel will save it." He adds: "To what good can man
earn the whole world, if he loses his own soul"? (Mark 8:35-36).
Attainment of success, longing for prestige and search for comfort: When
these things absorb life entirely until they exclude God from one's own
horizon, do they really lead to happiness? Can there be true happiness
without God? Experience shows that we are not happy because we satisfy
material expectations. In truth, the sole delight that fills a man's
heart is the one that comes from God: We truly need this infinite joy.
Neither the daily worries, nor the difficulty of life can cancel out the
joy that comes from our friendship with God. At first Jesus' invitation
to take up our cross and follow him can seem hard and against our wishes
-- even mortifying because of our desire for personal success. But if we
look closer we discover that it is not like that: The saints are proof
that in the Cross of Christ, in the love that is given renouncing
self-possession, we find a profound serenity that is the foundation of
generous devotion to our brothers, especially the poor and the needy.
This gives us joy.
The Lenten walk to conversion, which we undertake today with the whole
Church, becomes the propitious occasion, "the favorable moment" (cf. 2
Corinthians 6:2) to yield ourselves once again to the hands of God and
to practice what Jesus continuously repeats to us: "If someone wants to
follow me he must renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me"
(Mark 8:34), and thus take the path of love and true happiness.
During Lent the Church, in keeping with the Gospel, proposes certain
specific duties which assist the faithful in this journey of inner
renewal: prayer, fasting and charity. This year, in the message for Lent
published a few days ago, I wanted to focus on "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 are unfortunately aware of how deeply the desire for material riches
pervades modern society. As disciples of Jesus Christ we are taught not
to idolize earthly goods, but to use them to live and to help those who
are in need. In teaching us to be charitable, the Church teaches us to
address the needs of our neighbor, imitating Christ as noted by St.
Paul. He became poor to enrich us with his poverty (cf. 2 Corinthians
8:9). "In His school" -- I discuss this in more detail in the message
for Lent -- "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."
I continue: "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."
Dear brothers and sisters, we ask Mary, Mother of God and the Church, to
walk with us on the Lenten journey, to make it a journey of true
conversion. Let us be led by her and we will arrive -- profoundly
renewed -- at the celebration of the great mystery of the Easter of
Christ, the supreme revelation of God's merciful love.
A blessed Lent to all of you!
[Translation by Laura Leoncini]
[After praying the Angelus, the Holy Father greeted pilgrims in six
languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of our annual Lenten journey
of prayer and penance. In the early Church, Lent was the time when
catechumens prepared for Baptism, accompanied by the prayers of the
whole Christian community. Today, too, the Lenten season is a privileged
moment of conversion and spiritual renewal for the whole Church. The
rite of the imposition of ashes is a summons to return to God and, in
doing so, to discover authentic freedom and joy. Jesus reminds us that
only by "losing" our life will we truly "find" it. Our ultimate
fulfilment is found in God alone, who satisfies our deepest longings. By
taking up our cross and following the Lord, we experience redemption,
inner peace and loving solidarity with our brothers and sisters. During
Lent, in addition to prayer and fasting, the Church invites us to
practice almsgiving as an expression of our desire to imitate Christ's
own self-giving and his generous concern for others. As we set out once
again on this journey of spiritual renewal, may Mary, Mother of the
Church, guide us to a fruitful celebration of Easter. A Blessed Lent to
all of you!
This morning I am especially pleased to greet the delegation of
government leaders from Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, and I offer my
prayerful good wishes for their efforts to promote reconciliation,
justice and peace in the region. My warm greeting and prayerful
encouragement also goes to the participants in the Graduate School of
the Bossey Ecumenical Institute. I thank the choir for their praise of
God in song. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims, especially those
from England and the United States, I cordially invoke God's blessings
of joy and peace.
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