March 12, 2021

The Face of Mercy / Daniel Conway

The core of Lent: ‘asking where our hearts are directed’

(En Espanol)

“In Lent, may we be increasingly concerned with ‘speaking words of comfort, strength, consolation and encouragement, and not words that demean, sadden, anger or show scorn.’ In order to give hope to others, it is sometimes enough simply to be kind, to be ‘willing to set everything else aside in order to show interest, to give the gift of a smile, to speak a word of encouragement, to listen amid general indifference’ ” (Pope Francis’ message for Lent; “Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship,” #223-224).

Most people would agree that there is a crisis of kindness in the world today. Especially in political speech, but also in other areas of life, there is a strong tendency to demonize those who think or act differently than us. Civilized people can agree to disagree, but people who disdain all forms of difference—intellectual, cultural or political—can only call each other vulgar names. 

During the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pope Francis has consistently called for a radical change in the way we speak to each other as sisters and brothers made in the image and likeness of God. His 2020 encyclical “Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship” argues passionately for more human fraternity and solidarity among the world’s peoples. “In order to give hope to others,” the pope writes, “it is sometimes enough simply to be kind” (#224).

Where does kindness come from? It comes, of course, from the human heart, from a heart that is full of love and compassion. If our hearts are loving, it’s much easier to be kind—even to people we dislike or disagree with. But if our hearts are unloving, closed to the concerns of others, we resist all attempts to establish common ground with the people who are not in our inner circle.

Lent is a time for examining and, if possible, redirecting our hearts. As Pope Francis said in his homily for Ash Wednesday, “Lent is not just about the little sacrifices we make, but about discerning where our hearts are directed. This is the core of Lent: asking where our hearts are directed.”

Working to free our hearts from the attitudes, emotions and irrational fears that prevent us from being kind and compassionate toward others is a process of spiritual renewal. It’s the “journey of returning to God” that Pope Francis says is “a journey that involves our whole life, our entire being.”

Returning to God means turning away from self and from the demands of our egos. It means allowing God’s inexhaustible love and mercy to flood our hearts and wash away every impurity.

Lent is the season of healing and hope. It’s a time when we acknowledge our sins and ask God to help us become kinder, more loving and hope-filled. As our Holy Father says:

“We have fallen down, like little children who constantly fall, toddlers who try to walk but keep falling and need, time and time again, to be picked up by their father. It is the Father’s forgiveness that always sets us back on our feet. God’s forgiveness—confession—is the first step on our return journey. … All of us have deep-seated vices that we cannot uproot alone. All of us have paralyzing fears that we cannot overcome alone. We need to imitate that leper, who came back to Jesus and threw himself at his feet. We need Jesus’ healing, we need to present our wounds to him and say: ‘Jesus, I am in your presence, with my sin, with my sorrows. You are the physician. You can set me free. Heal my heart.’ ”

The spiritual renewal that we pursue actively during Lent is what makes kindness and solidarity for all our sisters and brothers possible. “God points his finger at no one,” Pope Francis says, “but rather opens his arms to embrace us.” Our challenge is to be tender and loving toward others in the measure that God is kind and compassionate to us. 

“In life’s most painful wounds,” the Holy Father assures us, “God awaits us with his infinite mercy. Because there, where we are most vulnerable, where we feel the most shame, he came to meet us. And having come to meet us, he now invites us to return to him, to rediscover the joy of being loved.

“Lent is a humble descent both inward and toward others,” Pope Francis says. “It is about realizing that salvation is not an ascent to glory, but a descent in love.”

This is where kindness comes from—the descent into love—and our world needs this kindness now more than ever.

(Daniel Conway is a member of The Criterion’s editorial committee.)

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