Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
For the last two years, we have experienced a pandemic which led to many restrictions and much suffering. Now we seem to be getting slowly back to normal, and we thank God for this. We all prayed that God may help us in this pandemic and sought the help and protection of Our Lady of Europe in these difficult times. We all remember the figure of Pope Francis, on a rainy night, all by himself in an empty St Peter’s square, praying for an end to this pandemic. In a way that picture of loneliness and suffering was an echo of the experience of many of us.
The season of Lent is upon us once more, a season which coincides with springtime and the rebirth of nature and new life which we see all around us. The Church also desires that each of us grow spiritually and experience a reawakening of our relationship with God during the forty days of Lent, which culminate at Easter with the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection.
From ancient times, Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord, has always been considered the jewel of the Church year. The setting upon which this jewel is placed is Lent–the time of preparation for Easter. Every significant event in our lives is more often than not preceded by a time of preparation. The more significant the event is, the more serious the preparation. Lent is likened to a pilgrimage. As a pilgrimage, the journey itself provides the preparation for the arrival. You could say the same about our earthly life: the journey is the preparation for the arrival – Eternity.
We enter the season of Lent with the hope that God’s grace may touch us and the determination to engage seriously in the work of moral and spiritual renewal. We do this so that we may live our Christian faith with integrity and celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ with true joy. Grace is like a spring of fresh running water which never runs dry. Grace flows even more abundantly in this Holy Season. Let us try to be imbued by that grace so that our sins may be forgiven, and we are refreshed in mind and spirit.
St. Leo the Great wrote: “What the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast enjoined by the Apostles may be fulfilled not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin.” The great challenge in Lent is to address sin in our lives. It is more beneficial in this respect to have a focused approach. We focus on that sin which is troubling us most, so that this personal sin is weakened or even eliminated.
Such a sin is a sin that we just can’t seem to get rid of or perhaps don’t really want to renounce. It may be a constant habit of criticizing or judging others, a refusal to reconcile with someone, a prejudice against a particular class of people, a tendency to lie to get our way, a sin of impurity or other form of self-indulgence. We first must desire to be rid of this particular sin. We need an honest talk with ourselves: do we want to do God’s will or not? Then we must admit that we have not been able by our own efforts to overcome that sin. In the gospel of St John, 8,34, Jesus tells the unbelieving Pharisees, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.”
The Sacrament of Reconciliation has great value in our effort to overcome sin, for it not only forgives sin but, if received sincerely, it keeps us from hardening in sin. Some sins, like wounds that require frequent applications of a soothing cream, need frequent confession, each confession and absolution weakening the hold of that sin on us.
The call to do penance is an ever-present invitation in Scripture. Lent invites us to an inner change of heart; a turning to God; a rejection of all that is evil; an opportunity for us to walk in a new direction. In the Gospel passage proclaimed on Ash Wednesday we are reminded that the traditional works of penance are fasting, almsgiving and prayer. St Peter Chrysologus see these three as being inseparably linked when he writes: ‘what prayer knocks for on a door, fasting successfully begs and mercy receives.’ (Sermon 43)
The traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving serve us well in overcoming personal sin. Prayer to an unbeliever seems to be a waste of time, but to us who believe in the living God, it is a daily lifeline that connects us with the One who created, redeemed and loves us. Traditional prayers are valuable for their simplicity and depth. God will listen to our own words as well and, in some fashion – by an inspiration He gives us, by a Scripture passage we hear or read, by a remark made by a friend, by something that happens – God will respond to us. The important thing is to give Him the time and opportunity to communicate with Him and that is what prayer does.
Fasting, whether from food or from a form of entertainment or from buying something we really don’t need, is like a silent prayer that cries out to God, saying we recognize our need for Him above all else. We hunger more for His Word than for bread. Almsgiving helps, too, for Scripture says: As water quenches a flaming fire, so alms atone for sins [Sirach 3:29]. Any kind of good work is a form of almsgiving. Good works take us out of ourselves and strike a blow at the self-centeredness that is at the heart of all sin. St. Leo the Great said, “What we save by fasting we give to feed the poor,” so fasting leads to actions that help others.
It is my wish that the charitable donations which you contribute because of your self-denial this year will go partly to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) which helps persecuted Christians throughout the world, and partly to Fr Augustine, who is now working among the poor in Honduras.
Let us pray to Our Father that through the intercession of Our Lady of Europe, our Patroness, we may be able to overcome the difficulties that we may have to face in the future, by being strong in our Faith. God will never forget us, because He loves us.
With much affection and every blessing,
Bishop of Gibraltar