Friday, March 22, 2019
Archbishop Thomas Wenski - The Archdiocese of Miami
Archbishop Thomas Wenski delivered the following talk to employees of the archdiocesan Pastoral Center during their annual Lenten reflection, the morning of March 22, 2019.
“There’s a scene in the middle of The Lord of the Rings, where the quest to destroy an evil, all-powerful ring seems to be utterly hopeless. Darkness and danger have surrounded and hounded Frodo, the little hobbit ultimately given the mission to destroy the ring, ever since he set foot out of the Shire, the idyllic and safe home he left behind for this quest.”
This was the scene my friend, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, set for a group of university students, as he spoke to them recently about their vocations and the purpose of their lives recently. He was not speaking on South Beach, but at a small Catholic college in North Dakota.
In a moment of despair, Archbishop Chaput noted, Frodo turns to his most faithful friend, Samwise Gamgee, a hobbit who has refused to leave Frodo’s side, and asks him whether it’s even worth continuing with the seemingly impossible mission.
Sam says yes, “because there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
Our annual observance of Lent calls us, through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, to re-engage ourselves in the quest. Lent began with ashes and a call to conversion: change your life and believe in the Gospel. In a world of fragile peace and broken promises, Lent reminds us that there is some good in the world and that it is worth fighting for. But Lent also reminds us that our task in life is not only to smash the ring – to right whatever we see that is wrong with the world; our task is also to break the power of the ring over ourselves.
I remember in 1983, Pope John Paul II visited Haiti and there, speaking truth to power – in front of that nation’s dictator – he said: Things must change here. His words translated into Creole, “FÃ²k sa chanje”, became the slogan that helped end the dictatorship. But, 36 years later, one could argue that nothing much has changed; for in order for things to change anywhere, we must change.
We can complain about our Church and her bishops; we can complain about our family life, our careers, our parish, the state of our world, but unless we decide to be the change that we want to see, we will be just left with our complaints. We can curse the darkness – or we can light a candle.
St. Augustine, who watched the Roman Empire collapse around him and who was a bishop at a time when the Church struggled with bitter theological divisions, would remind his people when they complained about the evil times they lived in that the times are made by the choices and actions of the people who inhabit them.
The forty days of Lent remind us of Jesus’ forty days fasting in the desert, but they also evoke the forty years the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness. Lent is a call to “exodus,” to come out of ourselves, our self-absorption, to come out of the fleshpots of Egypt, that is, to unlearn those habits of sin that keep us enslaved.
Lent is a call to reshape the times we are living in by reshaping ourselves. Lent is a call to be a protagonist in changing our culture and not just becoming a victim of it. Our choices and actions make us. Lent offers us – with the help of God’s grace – a “do over.”
Back to Archbishop Chanut’s talk. He told those millennials that “American life today is troubled by three great questions: What is love? What is truth? And who is Jesus Christ?” These are not the questions debated on Cable TV News programs – or, maybe they are, if we’re perceptive enough to read between the lines, as it were.
The secular world proposes easy answers to each of these questions: The secular world reduces love to sentimentality or just confuses it with lust. For the secularist, there no Truth – with a capital T, something that transcends me, something that I must conform too; there is only “my” truth. And Jesus Christ? No doubt a good guy – who just wants everybody to be nice to each other. (But, wait for it, when Easter comes, the secular press will have an article in which some “expert” will say something outlandish about Jesus or dig up another proof of the humanity of his followers – as if the actions of Judas and the apostles after the Last Supper didn’t give us enough proof, that we are sinners.)
These are “easy answers” – but they are ultimately false answers, false because they do not satisfy the hunger of our hearts, a hunger that noise, drugs and sex can never fully anesthetize. We cannot reduce “Man’s search for meaning” to what we can consume.
The Englishman, G. K. Chesterton, was an English man of letters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He surprised and dismayed many of his friends when he converted and became a Roman Catholic. When pressed for an explanation, he told them: “I became a Catholic so that I could have my sins forgiven.”
That is a pretty good reason. And, if we were to put out a “want ad" to seek more converts, perhaps the headline could read, “Sinners wanted,” or “Only sinners need apply.”
Lent, especially if we pay heed to the daily Scripture readings of the season, is a re-enactment in our lives of the human story recounted in Salvation History – the story of mankind’s journey back home to God, the story of our call to conversion of mind and heart by a loving and merciful God, a God who continues to call us to communion with himself.
Now this penance and fasting called for by Lent is not just about external actions but rather an internal attitude. “Rend your hearts not your garments,” the prophet tells us. Our Lenten practices are not about trying to manipulate God, like the child who holds his breath until he gets his way with his parent. And, while Jesus does not want us to hide our light under a bushel basket, he wants us to understand that all that we do should be to the greater glory of God. He is rather severe in his judgment of those who use religion just to draw attention to themselves.
Early in the first millennium of Christianity, one of the Ancient Fathers of the Faith, St. John Chrysostom wrote: “I tell you it is possible to fast without fasting. Is this a riddle? By enjoying food, while having no taste for sin, that is a better kind of fasting.” In other words, as Christians we are first obliged to fast from sin. There is no point in missing dinner and then spending the evening destroying your neighbor with gossip. “Starve your sins, not just your stomach.” If we remember this then the spiritual works of Lent – more intensive prayer, fasting and other works of self-denial that traditionally is put under the rubric of almsgiving – can help us as we address those contradictions in our lives that keep us from seeking the holiness to which we have been called in baptism.
Baptism recalls our own Passover foreshadowed in the Exodus of the Hebrews: We are delivered from the slavery of sin for the new life of grace. During the Easter vigils celebrated in our parishes, that journey will culminate for those that were entered into the Book of the Elect at St. Mary’s Cathedral, the first Sunday of Lent, in their baptisms. Baptism recalls our own Passover foreshadowed in the Exodus of the Hebrews: We are delivered from the slavery of sin for the new life of grace. And, so for the rest of us, that journey will culminate in the Renewal of our Baptismal Promises.
And since Lent is designed with the Renewal of Baptismal Promises in mind, a good confession should be a part of every Catholic’s Lenten observance. Through this sacrament, we can rediscover Christ as the one in whom God shows us his compassionate heart and “reconciles us fully with himself.”
The Sacrament of Penance remains “the ordinary way of obtaining forgiveness and the remission of serious sins committed after baptism.”
But just as the Hobbits did not remain in the Shire, so too, are Christians called to go out from the relative safety of their parishes to engage the world as missionary disciples in the war between good and evil being waged for the soul of the world.
Let me end again with Sam’s answer to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings: “There’s some good in the world, and it’s worth fighting for.” And as Archbishop Chaput told those college kids, “That’s a pretty good description of the vocation God asks from each of us.”