By Fr David Stewart SJ
Taste God’s Infinite Mercy
It’s already a full year since Pope Francis prayed for the whole world in that haunting and poignant televised service in a rainy, dark St Peter’s Square. For many of us watching, whether we were people of explicit faith or not, the simple liturgy revealed a palpable depth; his spoken words were matched by the intensity of the visual symbol. It went deep. It is the same profundity that the Pope invites us to find, in his intention for this month, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He asks that we pray with him ‘that we may experience the sacrament of reconciliation with renewed depth, to taste the infinite mercy of God’.
Reconciliation: Healing and Letting Go
Reconciliation is such a rich subject; when we celebrate this sacrament, we bless what we hope is reconciled, repaired, healed, most commonly in our relationships with each other. We ‘track and trace’ God’s reconciling action in that healing. And we learn also to let go, especially of hurts and loss, drawing down the grace that will enable us to move forward brightly. We learn, over time, that we can’t proceed without this healing, enabling grace. This is heartfelt knowledge of the renewed depth of God’s infinite mercy, for which we pray with the Pope this month.
It's a Lenten Intention. Last month, Ash Wednesday began the season of repentance and penance. But what we’re used to didn’t happen in many places. For the greater common good, to try to keep everybody safe, many churches and places of worship had to close their doors for a time. This was hard for many of us to bear. Most of us could not receive our ashes, as we always have done. Alternative rites were composed and offered; some of us took comfort from using these at home. These are important outward signs. Inner movement matters, of course. That movement shifts us towards hope, away from the darkness that has been so much feature of our lives for almost a year. As Lent began, the Pope reminded us that ‘Lent is precisely the season of hope when we turn our gaze back to the God who is patient. Saint Paul passionately urges us to place our hope in reconciliation: “Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20)”.’
The Prayer Pathway, Our Way of the Heart
In our Prayer Pathway, particularly with these monthly intentions, we have a tool that helps us to pray in a regular way for the grace to open our hearts to the movement of grace. It helps us to offer ourselves and our lives for this precious service. That’s why we call it our ‘Way of the Heart’. We realise that our good inner desires are the beginnings of our faith-response to the Lord’s gentle prompting. That phrase so beloved of St Ignatius, about ‘finding God in all things’, is not, as Pope Francis colourfully put it, a eureka moment; it’s a gradual discovery that God has been seeking, and sometimes finding us, when all along we assumed that we were doing this searching. It’s occasionally striking, indeed stunning. More often it’s slow and gradual. Lent’s reorientation of our compasses can ease this pathway. In this way, the heart of our mission truly will be our prayer.
Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving
Pope Francis reminded us, on 19th February in Rome, that fasting, prayer and almsgiving, as preached by Jesus (cf. Mt 6:1-18), will enable and express our conversion of heart. We are sometimes defined, as Catholics, by ‘giving up something for Lent’, just as we are sometimes identified by the smudge on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. No ashes this year, and many people have been saying how it’s felt like a year-long Lent! But we need always to remember that ‘giving it up’ is not, on its own, what Lent is about, despite the popular imagery. And it most certainly is not about creating an opportunity to lose excess weight, even though many of us have noticed those extra lockdown kilos growing. Prayer, fasting and giving are, together, indispensable; you need all three, and they all support and inform each other. We pray for the healing we need, in a renewed experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as the Pope asks. We go without something, deliberately, and thirdly we make sure that someone less well-off benefits from our self-denial. All three aspects of Lent will, for us, deepen our inner knowledge of God’s mercy.
Three Proposals for March and Lent
PRAY: As an Apostle of Prayer, make a point of visiting our Way of the Heart (on our website); visit each of the nine steps, perhaps more than once. Alternatively, make it a gentle Lenten resolution (it’s not too late!) to make a daily Morning Offering, using the prayer given below, or the traditional Apostleship of Prayer offering, or by clicking on our Click-to-Pray App. Make a resolution to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation as soon as it’s possible to do so; in the meantime, pray for the moment when you do so, that it will be a moment of renewed depth.
FAST: Remembering that our Lenten fasting is for the poor, explore how any Lenten penances you’ve chosen, such as giving up a treat, should not be designed not just for improving your own health but must be for the benefit of the poor. Set aside any unspent cash each day to give away!
ALMSGIVING: The third, essential part of Lenten discipline is giving, as we’ve just seen, from our fasting, so let’s make a point of giving to a charity that aids the poor and disadvantaged, in our midst or overseas. And remember to pray for them too!
A Daily Offering Prayer
Eternal Father, I offer you everything I do this day:
my work, my prayers, my apostolic efforts, my hours of relaxation, my difficulties, problems, distress and loneliness, which I shall try to bear with patience.
Join these, my gifts, to the unique gift of Reconciliation which Jesus has given to us sacramentally, so that I might renew and deepen the taste of your infinite mercy,
today and every day.
In the Heart of Christ, Amen.
For additional resources, please visit www.praywiththepope.net. The prayer app, for desktops, tablets and smartphones, is available to download www.clicktopray.org.
Fr David Stewart is the UK Director of the Pope's Prayer Network