February 12, 2016


Observing Lent in the Holy Year of Mercy

When Pope Francis issued the bull “Misericordiae Vultus” (“The Face of Mercy”), he proclaimed a Holy Year of Mercy from Dec. 8, 2015, through Nov. 20, 2016. That means that every season of this liturgical year takes on the character of mercy in a special way.

But in his proclamation of this jubilee year, the Holy Father places particular emphasis on the season of Lent. Pope Francis writes, “The season of Lent during this Jubilee Year should also be lived more intensely as a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy” (“Misericordiae Vultus,” #17). He goes on to say that during Lent we can rediscover the merciful face of God.

Most of us do not consider Lent “a privileged moment.” In fact, many of us regard Lent as something of a necessary evil. Yes, Lent is a time of fast and abstinence that prepares us for the joy of Easter, but in itself this season is too often regarded as a time of grim endurance, not an opportunity to experience love and mercy.

Pope Francis sees Lent differently, and he invites us to do the same.

From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has been urging us to experience the joy of the Gospel. Where do we find joy in Lent? How do the Lenten observances of prayer, fasting and almsgiving lead us to encounter God and to share his joy?

The answer can be found in the lives of the saints. The holy women and men who are our guides in following Jesus and living the kind of life he lived show us that authentic Gospel joy can only be found through closeness to God (prayer), genuine self-denial (fasting) and generous sharing of ourselves (time, talent and treasure) with others, especially the poor and vulnerable. Joy is found when we are not preoccupied with our own self-interest, our happiness, our comfort and security or our independence. Joy is found in giving up, sharing with others and allowing God’s will to guide all dimensions of our lives.

Lent is a time of intense holy living. It is a time to remind ourselves that we do not live for ourselves, but for God and for our neighbor.

In “The Face of Mercy,” Pope Francis urges us to look especially to Mary, the Mother of Mercy. The Holy Father believes that she can help us “rediscover the joy of God’s tenderness” (“Misericordiae Vultus,” #24). Tenderness is not a usual Lenten theme, but it is intimately connected with the image of God found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. “I trust this jubilee year celebrating the mercy of God will foster an encounter with these religions [Judaism and Islam], and with other noble religious traditions,” Pope Francis writes. “May it open us to even more fervent dialogue so that we might know and understand one another better; may it eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination” (“Misericordiae Vultus,” #23).

Mary bridges the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. She is revered by many for her holiness and her fidelity to God’s will. “No one has penetrated the profound mystery of the incarnation like Mary,” the Holy Father writes. “Her entire life was patterned after the presence of mercy made flesh” (“Misericordiae Vultus,” #24).

“Mercy made flesh” is the image of the incarnation that Pope Francis calls us to ponder in a special way during this holy season. He invites us to address Mary in the words of the Salve Regina “so that she may never tire of turning her merciful eyes upon us, and make us worthy to contemplate the face of mercy, her Son Jesus” (“Misericordiae Vultus,” #24).

During Lent, prayer can bring us closer to the God who is closer to us than we are to ourselves—if only we will open our minds and hearts to him, the presence of mercy made flesh.

During Lent, fasting can help us exercise self-denial and seek God’s will before all else.

During Lent, almsgiving, the generous sharing of all God’s gifts, can be a true participation in the inner life of the Holy Trinity whose love and goodness continually pours out. As Pope Francis teaches, “From the heart of the Trinity, from the depths of the mystery of God, the great river of mercy wells up and overflows unceasingly. It is a spring that never runs dry, no matter how many people draw from it.”

This Lent, let’s work at being close to God, denying ourselves and sharing generously with others. May the Father of mercy be with us this Lent, and always, as we seek to be missionary disciples who give witness to the incarnation, God’s mercy made flesh.

—Daniel Conway

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