Lent: A penitential mobilization

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The following is the text of the homily of Bishop Rhoades on Ash Wednesday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne, a Lenten message for the whole diocese:

“Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.” These words of the prophet Joel introduce us to the season of Lent. They teach us that the basic feature of this time of grace, these 40 days of Lent, is conversion of our hearts. Lent is a time to get back on the right path by detaching ourselves from whatever keeps us distant from God. That’s why we do works of penance during these 40 days. They are not done for their own sake, but with a higher purpose: inner renewal and conversion.

We pray more during Lent. We deny ourselves certain foods or drink. Hopefully, we also practice almsgiving more fervently. And amidst these penitential practices, we are asking pardon of the Lord for our offenses. It is the conversion of our hearts, interior change, that is most important. We pray in the words of King David in Psalm 51: “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.”

We observe these 40 days of Lent not as isolated individuals, but as members of the community of the Church. Repentance and conversion is deeply personal, taking place in each of our hearts. When we go to confession, for example, it is individual. Yet, our reconciliation also involves the community. When we are restored to God’s grace in the sacrament of Penance, we are also reconciled with the Church. The sacrament repairs or restores our communion with the Church. It “has also a revitalizing effect on the life of the Church which suffered from the sin of one of her members” (CCC 1469).

So we don’t journey through Lent as isolated individuals, but together as brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. Notice that the prophet Joel called the whole community to repentance. He said: “Blow the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; Gather the people, notify the congregation; assemble the elders, gather the children …” There was what St. John Paul II called “a penitential mobilization.” That’s what this season of Lent is: a penitential mobilization. All of us, young and old, children and elders; no one is left out. That’s why the Church has communal penances during Lent, like today, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday: We all fast. And on every Friday of Lent, we abstain from meat. So besides our individual Lenten penances, we do these common penances as a community, showing that we are all in this together.

It is beautiful to see how many attend daily Mass during Lent, gathering with brothers and sisters every day during this holy season. It is beautiful to see communities in our parishes and schools doing almsgiving together, engaging in projects like Operation Rice Bowl to assist the needy around the world. It is beautiful during Lent to gather together to meditate on the Lord’s Passion through the Stations of the Cross. I encourage you in these communal practices, a way to walk together on the penitential journey of Lent, while also doing private penance, individual acts, “going to your inner room,” as Jesus says in the Gospel, knowing that “your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

The Church calls us to a penitential mobilization. You’ve heard that call. That’s why you are here at this Ash Wednesday liturgy. As individuals and as a community, today we recognize, in the ceremony of the ashes, that we are creatures, made of dust and destined to return to dust. We also recognize that we are sinners, in need of God’s pardon in order to be able to live according to the Gospel. We hear St. Paul’s exhortation: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

Even more important than receiving ashes today is our receiving the Holy Eucharist. The Lord comes to strengthen us with His grace and to revive our love. The Eucharist helps us to resist the temptation of sin. In Holy Communion, we receive the Lord who is the Way that leads us to salvation, the Truth that sets us free, and the Life that knows no death!

I hope and pray that you will have a good and fruitful