“Do you believe in a God who loves you? Do you believe in a God who forgives? Are you able to offer forgiveness to those who have hurt you? Are you able to ask forgiveness from them? Pope Francis has been teaching us, through his example, that God looks beyond our faults and failings and loves us just as we are. Can we trust in that love?” These are the opening words of a pastoral letter issued on Ash Wednesday by Bishop Mitchell Rozanski, the bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts, and they are words that have been resonating in my heart since I first read them.
Bishop Rozanski used the occasion of this Ash Wednesday letter to mark the Jubilee of Mercy by doing something rare for a church official – apologizing to and seeking reconciliation with those who have ever felt unwelcome in Church because of their gender, their race, or their sexual orientation.
He says, “There are [those] who have distanced themselves because they feel unwelcomed. The reasons here can vary, but key among them are race and cultural differences, a sense of gender inequality as well as sexual orientation. Others have been treated unkindly, impatiently, or rudely by clergy, religious, ministers, and staff of parishes — all which is unacceptable. I ask your forgiveness.” He said parishes “must be inviting and energetic environments, founded both in our traditions but also the reality of everyday life,” and urged Catholics to “to evangelize those who were once, but are no longer with us. We need you, we need your presence, your gifts and your talents. We need you to complete our community, to enrich it, to make it better and more effective.”
“Do you believe in a God who loves you? Do you believe in a God who forgives? Are you able to offer forgiveness to those who have hurt you? Are you able to ask forgiveness from them?” I was moved by the bishop’s words because they are words that I know many Catholics have been longing to hear. But, I was also moved by these words because they also struck me at the start of this Lent as not only powerful words addressing a specific need, but also the kind of words that should define the very attitude of every Christian; perhaps a sort of mission statement for us all. Pope Francis said very early in his papacy, “Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven.”
Our Gospel today presents us with the temptation of Jesus in the desert. In this moment, the Devil tempts Jesus with very earthly, very worldly things – he tempts Him with all the power and glory, wealth and fame, that the world can muster. Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He knows that the things being offered to Him are weak and pitiful in the light of what is real and true in God’s sight. He knows that all of the money or power in the world can’t bring about the change that mercy, love, reconciliation, compassion, healing, forgiveness, and joy can. He knows this with certainty in the depths of His heart and so these temptations, in the end, are no temptation at all.
My friends, as we stand at the start of this Lenten journey once again – especially in this Jubilee Year of Mercy – I ask you: “Do you believe in a God who loves you? Do you believe in a God who forgives? Are you able to offer forgiveness to those who have hurt you? Are you able to ask forgiveness from them?” Because these are the things that matter. These are the things that have the power – true power – to change your life and the lives of those around you. I also believe this is where too many of us struggle. We are perhaps uncertain of God’s love for us, or perhaps have never truly felt it. Maybe we have not sought out God’s forgiveness in far too long, or no longer believe we need it; or worse, no longer believe we are deserving of it. We, too often, fear to break the ice with the person from whom we need to simply say, “Please forgive me. I was wrong.” But, these are the words that change lives. These are the words that change the world. Perhaps this Lent you will speak them yourself. Do you believe? God never tires of forgiving us. God’s mercy has no limits. God is love itself and invites us to dwell in that love. Do you believe?
So, what do you want your Lent to be about this year? Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven. But, YOU are the Church – not this stone and mortar, stained-glass and marble – you are the church. May you be a place of mercy, may I be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed loved and forgiven. This is what our Lent should truly be about.
May the Lord give you peace.