Just read Pope Francis’ Ash Wednesday homily today and Pope Benedict’s from 2013. Amazing how many similar notes they stressed. Here is a translation of Pope Francis’ homily via Vatican Radio with my emphases:
(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis delivered the homily at Mass in the Basilica of St. Sabina on the Aventine Hilll in Rome on Wednesday afternoon – Ash Wednesday – the beginning of the great penitential season of Lent. Below, please find Vatican Radio’s translation of the text the Holy Father prepared for the occasion.
As God’s people today we begin the journey of Lent, a time in which we try to unite ourselves more closely to the Lord Jesus Christ, to share the mystery of His passion and resurrection.
The Ash Wednesday liturgy offers us, first of all, the passage from the prophet Joel, sent by God to call the people to repentance and conversion, due to a calamity (an invasion of locusts) that devastates Judea. Only the Lord can save from the scourge, and so there is need of supplication, with prayer and fasting, each confessing his sin.
The prophet insists on inner conversion: “Return to me with all your heart” (2:12). To return to the Lord “with all [one’s] heart,” means taking the path of a conversion that is neither superficial nor transient, but is a spiritual journey that reaches the deepest place of our self. The heart, in fact, is the seat of our sentiments, the center in which our decisions and our attitudes mature.
That, “Return to me with all your heart,” does not involve only individuals, but extends to the community, is a summons addressed to all: “Gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. (2:16)”
The prophet dwells particularly on the prayers of priests, noting that their prayer should be accompanied by tears. We will do well to ask, at the beginning of this Lent, for the gift of tears, so as to make our prayer and our journey of conversion ever more authentic and without hypocrisy.
This is precisely the message of today’s Gospel. In the passage from Matthew, Jesus rereads the three works of mercy prescribed by the Mosaic law: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Over time, these prescriptions had been scored by the rust of external formalism, or even mutated into a sign of social superiority. Jesus highlights a common temptation in these three works, which can be described summarily as hypocrisy (He names it as such three times): “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them … Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do … And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men … And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites. (Mt 6:1, 2, 5, 16)”
When you do something good, almost instinctively born in us is the desire to be respected and admired for this good deed, to obtain a satisfaction. Jesus invites us to do these works without any ostentation, and to trust only in the reward of the Father “who sees in secret” (Mt 6,4.6.18).
Dear brothers and sisters, the Lord never ceases to have mercy on us, and desires to offer us His forgiveness yet again, inviting us to return to Him with a new heart, purified from evil, to take part in His joy. How to accept this invitation? St. Paul makes a suggestion to us in the second reading today: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:20)” This work of conversion is not just a human endeavor. Reconciliation between us and God is possible thanks to the mercy of the Father who, out of love for us, did not hesitate to sacrifice his only Son. In fact, the Christ, who was righteous and without sin was made sin for us (v. 21) when on the cross He was burdened with our sins, and so redeemed us and justified before God. In Himwe can become righteous, in him we can change, if we accept the grace of God and do not let the “acceptable time (6:2)” pass in vain.
With this awareness, trusting and joyful, let us begin our Lenten journey. May Mary Immaculate sustain our spiritual battle against sin, accompany us in this acceptable time, so that we might come together to sing the exultation of victory in Easter.
Soon we will make the gesture of the imposition of ashes on the head. The celebrant says these words: “You are dust and to dust you shall return, (cf. Gen 3:19)” or repeats Jesus’ exhortation: “Repent and believe the gospel. (Mk 1:15)” Both formulae are a reminder of the truth of human existence: we are limited creatures, sinners ever in need of repentance and conversion. How important is it to listen and to welcome this reminder in our time! The call to conversion is then a push to return, as did the son of the parable, to the arms of God, tender and merciful Father, to trust Him and to entrust ourselves to Him.
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin a new Lenten journey, a journey that extends for forty days and leads us to the joy of Easter, the victory of Life over death. Following the ancient Roman tradition of Lenten stationes, we have gathered for the celebration of the Eucharist. The tradition says that the first statio should take place in the Basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. The circumstances have suggested that we gather in St. Peter’s Basilica. Tonight we are great in number around the tomb of the Apostle Peter, also to request his intercession for the Church’s journey at this particular time, renewing our faith in the Supreme Pastor, Christ the Lord. For me it is a good opportunity to thank everyone, especially the faithful of the Diocese of Rome, as I prepare to conclude my Petrine ministry, and ask for a special remembrance in prayer.
The readings that have been proclaimed provide us with ideas that, with the grace of God, we are called to make concrete attitudes and behaviors during this Lent. The Church proposes to us, first, the strong appeal that the prophet Joel addressed to the people of Israel, “Thus says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12). Please note the phrase “with all my heart,” which means from the center of our thoughts and feelings, from the roots of our decisions, choices and actions, with a gesture of total and radical freedom. But is this return to God possible? Yes, because there is a force that does not reside in our hearts, but that emanates from the heart of God. It is the power of his mercy. The prophet says, further: “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in faithful love, ready to repent of evil” (v. 13). The return to the Lord is possible as a ‘grace’, because it is the work of God and the fruit of that faith that we place in His mercy. But this return to God becomes a reality in our lives only when the grace of God penetrates to our inmost being and shakes it, giving us the power to “rend our hearts.” The same prophet causes these words from God to resonate: “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (v. 13). In fact, even today, many are ready to “rend their garments” before scandals and injustices – of course, made by others – but few seem willing to act on their own “heart”, on their own conscience and their own intentions, letting the Lord transform, renew and convert.
That “return to me with all your heart,” then, is a reminder that involves not only the individual, but the community. We have heard, also in the first reading: “Play the horn in Zion, proclaim a solemn fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, convoke a solemn assembly, call the old, gather the children and the infants at the breast; let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her bridal chamber”(vv.15-16). The community dimension is an essential element in faith and Christian life. Christ came “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (cfr. Jn 11:52). The “we” of the Church is the community in which Jesus brings us together (cf. Jn 12:32): faith is necessarily ecclesial. And this is important to remember and to live in this time of Lent: each person is aware that he or she does not face the penitential journey alone, but together with many brothers and sisters in the Church.
Finally, the prophet focuses on the prayers of the priests, who, with tears in their eyes, turn to God, saying: “Do not expose your heritage to the reproach and derision of the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’ “(v.17). This prayer makes us reflect on the importance of the testimony of faith and Christian life of each of us and our community to show the face of the Church and how that face is sometimes disfigured. I am thinking in particular about sins against the unity of the Church, the divisions in the ecclesial body. Living Lent in a more intense and evident ecclesial communion, overcoming individualism and rivalry, is a humble and precious sign for those who are far from the faith or indifferent.
“Behold, now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). The words of the Apostle Paul to the Christians of Corinth resonate for us, too, with an urgency that does not allow omission or inaction. The word “now” repeated several times says that we cannot let this time pass us by, it is offered to us as a unique opportunity. And the Apostle’s gaze focuses on the sharing that Christ chose to characterize his life, taking on everything human to the point of bearing the very burden of men’s sins. The phrase St. Paul uses is very strong: “God made him sin for our sake.” Jesus, the innocent one, the Holy One, “He who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21), bears the burden of sin, sharing with humanity its outcome of death, and death on the cross. The reconciliation offered to us has cost a high price, that of the cross raised on Golgotha, on which was hung the Son of God made man. In this immersion of God in human suffering and in the abyss of evil lies the root of our justification. The “return to God with all your heart” in our Lenten journey passes through the cross, following Christ on the road to Calvary, the total gift of self. It is a way on which to learn every day to come out more and more from our selfishness and our closures, to make room for God who opens and transforms the heart. And St. Paul recalls how the announcement of the Cross resounds to us through the preaching of the Word, of which the Apostle himself is an ambassador; it is a call for us to make this Lenten journey characterized by a more careful and assiduous listening to the Word of God, the light that illuminates our steps.
In the Gospel of Matthew, to which belongs the so-called Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to three fundamental practices required by Mosaic Law: almsgiving, prayer and fasting; they are also traditional indications in the Lenten journey to respond to the invitation to “return to God with all your heart.” But Jesus emphasizes that it is both the quality and the truth of the relationship with God that determines the authenticity of each religious gesture. For this reason He denounces religious hypocrisy, the behavior that wants to be seen, attitudes seeking applause and approval. The true disciple does not serve himself or the “public”, but his Lord, in simplicity and generosity: “And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Mt 6:4.6.18). Our witness, then, will always be more effective the less we seek our own glory, and we will know that the reward of the righteous is God himself, being united to Him, here below, on the journey of faith, and, at the end of life, in the peace and light of coming face to face with Him forever (cf. 1 Cor 13:12).
Dear brothers and sisters, we begin our Lenten journey, trusting and joyful. May the invitation to conversion resonate strongly in us, to “return to God with all your heart”, accepting His grace that makes us new men, with the surprising novelty that is sharing in the very life of Jesus. Let none of us, therefore, be deaf to this appeal, that is addressed to us also in the austere rite, so simple and yet so beautiful, of the imposition of ashes, which we will perform shortly. May the Virgin Mary accompany us in this time, the Mother of the Church and model of every true disciple of the Lord. Amen!
[Original text: Italian]