March 10, 2017


Recipe for a joyful Lent

Pope Francis is known as a man who proclaims in every time and season the mercy of God. He is also seen as a “joyful pope.” What’s the connection between God’s mercy and the human experience of joy as witnessed so enthusiastically by our current pope?

Recall that during the early days of his pontificate, the Holy Father was asked by a journalist: “Who are you?”

Pope Francis might have said many things in response. He might have said he was a man of the Church, or a proud son of immigrants who settled in Argentina before he was born. He could have pointed to his membership in the Society of Jesus—the Jesuits—or his many years as a teacher, administrator, counselor and advocate for the poor. But, true as all these things are, Pope Francis responded with something simpler and more fundamental to his identity.

“I am a sinner,” the pope said. He didn’t elaborate, explain or excuse his statement. He just said, “I am a sinner” as if that said everything.

Pope Francis’ understanding of himself as a sinner is the key to his absolute faith in the mercy of God. It is also the source of his joy. It is because he recognizes his need for forgiveness that he appreciates in a profound way God’s unrelenting mercy.

And because he knows himself to be a sinful man whom God loves and forgives unconditionally, Pope Francis is free to experience and share the joy that comes from being loved, accepted and welcomed into the family of God.

So, even in the Church’s penitential seasons (Advent and Lent), the pope places his emphasis on joy. He does not mean something superficial—like the happiness we experience when our senses are gratified by food, drink, entertainment or the stroking of our egos.

On the contrary, Pope Francis sees the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as opportunities to set aside false or incomplete self-gratifications for the lasting joy that comes with experiencing God’s forgiveness and sharing this amazing gift with others through corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

This fundamental insight into the self-understanding of Pope Francis as a sinner who rejoices in the mercy of God helps to explain his approach to fasting during the season of Lent. Here are the pope’s recommendations for fasting:

  • Fast from offensive words and transmit only sweet and tender words.
  • Fast from dissatisfaction and fill yourself with gratitude.
  • Fast from anger and fill yourself with meekness and patience.
  • Fast from pessimism and be filled with optimism.
  • Fast from worries and be filled with confidence in God.
  • Fast from laments and take pleasure in the simple things of life.
  • Fast from stress and fill yourself with prayer.
  • Fast from sadness and bitterness, and fill your heart with joy.
  • Fast from selfishness, and be filled with compassion for others.
  • Fast from unforgiveness and vendetta, and be filled with acts of reconciliation and forgiveness.
  • Fast from words and fill yourself with silence and readiness to listen to others.

This is not how we were taught to understand fasting. But Pope Francis assures us that this is what God asks of us—“mercy, not sacrifice.” If we all practice this more positive and proactive style of fasting, the Holy Father assures us that our daily lives will be filled with peace, joy, trust in each other, and life.

Lent does not need to be a time of bitter privation. It can be a season of eager preparation for the greatest joy of all—the Easter celebration of the Lord’s resurrection.

God’s mercy to us sinners demands that we be grateful, and that we work to change our lives. Lent is full of opportunities for thanksgiving and renewal. After all, it is a time of anticipation and preparation for the promised joy of Easter.

In fact, prayer, fasting and almsgiving are a recipe for Easter joy. Each requires us to move beyond our selves, to open up to God and our neighbor. Pope Francis would add that if we accept the discipline of Lent with the right attitude, it will help us step outside of our comfort zones in order to serve others—especially those who are most in need of our help.

This Lent, let’s fast from inner blindness and self-centeredness. Let’s reach out to God and to our neighbors with acts of love and forgiveness that show we are members of God’s family who are grateful for his mercy and eager to share his love.

—Daniel Conway

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