“Repent, and believe in the gospel.” With these words, Jesus began his public ministry. He calls us to conversion. We hear this call anew every year during the season of Lent.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that our Lord’s call to conversion “does not aim first at outward works, ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance” (CCC 1430).
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are good and important practices during Lent and are a great help to our spiritual growth. They help us on our journey of conversion. However, these practices must not be performed only as an external fulfillment, but as the expression of our interior disposition: the conversion of our hearts, what the Fathers of the Church called cumpunctio cordis, “repentance of heart.”
Our external works of penance are to be accompanied by an interior desire to return to the Lord, to turn away from evil. We ask the Lord to help us to overcome sinful habits, to cleanse us of unholy desires, and to purify un-Christian ways of thinking or acting that may have crept into our lives. Sometimes, we can experience powerful forces within us, temptations to sin, that we find hard to resist. During Lent, we resolve to do battle with sin in our lives. We say to God: “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.” We ask the Lord to take us by the hand and lead us along the way He wishes us to follow.
The Catechism describes interior repentance as “a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace” (CCC 1431).
The good news of Lent is that God gives us the strength to begin anew. He gives us his grace. We think especially of the great gift he has given us in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Jesus instituted this sacrament to offer us a new opportunity to convert and to be restored to God’s grace. It brings about a true “spiritual resurrection” in us. In a sense, we pass from death to life when we go to confession and receive absolution. I encourage all to receive this sacrament of conversion during the season of Lent.
As I mentioned, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are important forms of penance during this Lenten season. They are to be expressions of our “interior penance.” Recall the preaching of Isaiah in the Old Testament. The people were fasting and they did not understand why God did not seem to notice this or reward them for their fasting. The problem was that their exterior fasting did not express interior penance. In fact, God reprimanded them through Isaiah, telling them that their fasting was not acceptable to him because it was merely external. They were unjust in their dealings with others and ignored those in need.
It should not be surprising that God ignores fasts or other practices if those who perform them commit sins against justice and charity. God says he will have nothing to do with the hypocrisy of those who perform fasts but behave wickedly, whereas he will certainly listen to prayers and fasting if they are accompanied by acts of justice and charity. This is a warning to us not to just go through the motions of religious observance. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are signs of authentic conversion and growth in holiness. Love of neighbor and works of mercy manifest true love of God. When we examine our consciences, it is important to ask ourselves whether the fruits of love are present in our lives.
Pope Benedict’s Lenten message this year focuses on the following passage from the letter to the Hebrews: “Let us be concerned for each other, to stir a response in love and good works” (Heb 10:24). The Holy Father highlights concern for others, responsibility towards our brothers and sisters, as essential to the Christian life. This “concern for others entails desiring what is good for them from every point of view: physical, moral and spiritual.” He cites two parables of Jesus as examples for us: the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, both found in the Gospel of Luke. “Both parables show examples of the opposite of ‘being concerned,’ of looking upon others with love and compassion.” Pope Benedict states that “reaching out to others and opening our hearts to their needs can become an opportunity for salvation and blessedness.”
Acts of charity towards our neighbor are part of our Lenten journey of conversion. I think especially of almsgiving, by which we express concrete concern for the poor.
During this Lenten season, let us not forget the priority of interior conversion, the conversion of the heart. Our hearts are moved to this conversion when we look upon him whom our sins have pierced. Saint Clement of Rome wrote: “Let us fix our eyes on Christ’s blood and understand how precious it is to his Father, for, poured out for our salvation, it has brought to the whole world the grace of repentance.”
On Ash Wednesday, we heard the words of Saint Paul imploring the Corinthians: “on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” This invitation rings out to us to take the Lenten call to conversion seriously. God wants to create a pure heart in us. Let us open our souls to God’s grace and live intensely this holy season, this journey of conversion towards Easter!
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