Pope Benedict always gets my attention. It seems every Lent he gives to me a new angle for the traditional and familiar. This year is no exception.
The theme of his Lenten message is from Hebrews 10:24, but with a few twists. As the ashes are still fresh on our foreheads from Ash Wednesday yesterday, I encourage all to read the entire Lenten message of Pope Benedict XVI at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/lent/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20111103_lent-2012_en.html.
Let me share three highlights.
First, as I begin the traditional Lenten observances of prayer, fasting and alms-giving, our Holy Father reminds me that these actions are to lead me to “notice” others. He quotes the Greek katanoein, meaning, “to observe carefully.”
Like parents who instruct baby sitters to “keep an eye on” the child in the sitter’s care, or bishops exhorting Confirmation sponsors to do the same for the newly confirmed youth, Hebrews calls us to purify ourselves in Lent so that we might keep an eye on others. The parable of the rich man who ignored Lazarus is contrasted with the familiar figure of the Good Samaritan who did not pass by the person who was harmed.
Then Pope Benedict adds the twist. We should concern ourselves with “noticing” both the spiritual and physical well-being of others, which can call us at times to “fraternal correction.” I grew up with a sense of privacy and not intruding into others’ lives, but this Lenten message says that the prophetic call to repentance is one that occasionally every baptized person is given. To describe this, he uses the Greek elenchein, which means speaking out against a generation indulging in evil.
Lest we all rush in to correct the splinter in our neighbor’s eye while ignoring the plank in our own, consider what I was taught in the seminary about the steps to take when correction is needed. The first step is to pray for the person in need, and then second, ask God whether you are the one best to offer correction. (For parents, Confirmation sponsors, teachers, priests and bishops, often the answer is yes if the person is in our care.) Finally, we are to be present to give a helping hand to correct. As we offer that helping hand, I also add the strong advice of St. Paul in Galatians 6:1 when he exhorts the reader to “correct in a gentle spirit, looking to yourself, so that you may not be tempted.”
These past weeks we have found that even policies of our government authorities need corrections. The recent government mandates requiring objectionable procedures such as abortion-inducing contraceptives, sterilization and contraceptives to be offered and paid for by Church institutions or believing citizens at the price of conscience violation must be opposed. This involves fraternal correction in a major way, and I urge you to keep informed. To view a link to the latest summary of the issues involved, click here.
Pope Benedict concludes his message with the use of the word “reciprocal.” Being concerned with others, fraternal correction and conversion emerge from a mutual relationship of love. In fact, any time we seek truly to love another we both give and receive. This reciprocity “…is seen in the Church, the mystical body of Christ: the community constantly does penance and asks for forgiveness of sins of its members, but also unfailingly rejoices in the examples of virtue and charity present in her midst.”
I have been thinking of my dear brother, George, who had Down Syndrome and who died at the age of 60 ten years ago last month. As I contemplated our Holy Father’s message of reciprocity, it reminded me of a 20-year old article I wrote about George after our mother died and I became legal guardian for him, and we shared a rectory. Here’s the quote:
“Recently, after celebrating a Mass for our dear mother, I must have looked a little down to him. He gave me a pat on the back and said, ‘Don’t worry. Mom is in heaven. You have me.’ Giving and receiving are intertwined. We never do one exclusively. In the case of my relating to my brother, it is not a cliché to say I have received much more than I have given. That’s the nature of Christian community. The love of Christ calls all of us to be good givers and good receivers and so to love.” Read the whole article here.
We ask for a fruitful Lent as we pray, fast and give alms to open our hearts to a genuine noticing of those around us with the courage to correct faults in ourselves and others and the capacity to give and to receive as the Body of Christ, his Church.