Pope Francis said the time of Lent is a call to leave hypocrisy behind and reconcile with God through fasting, charity and prayerful tears before our merciful Father.
“I ask you a question: do I cry? Does the Pope cry? Do cardinals cry? Do bishops cry? Do consecrated men and women cry? Do priests cry?” the Pope said during his Feb. 18 Ash Wednesday Mass.
Pope Francis focused during the Mass on the idea of “weeping in prayer.”
In keeping with papal tradition for Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis began the Lenten liturgy with a procession, during which he walked from Rome’s Sant’Anselmo church to the church of Santa Sabina on Aventine Hill.
He immediately turned to the words of the prophet Joel, who calls the people to penance and conversion due to a locus invasion plaguing the land.
Joel tells the people to beg the Lord for deliverance with prayer, fasting and the confession of their sins, since God is the only one who can save them from the “scourge.”
The prophet’s call to “return to me with all your heart” is an invitation to an interior conversion that is not “superficial or transient,” but rather signals a journey involving the most intimate part of ourselves, the Pope said.
In his prophesy, Joel focuses largely on the prayer of priests, saying it should be “accompanied by tears,” Francis noted, and encouraged faithful to pray for the gift of tears during Lent “so as to make our prayer and journey of conversion ever more authentic and without hypocrisy.”
Francis turned to the day’s Gospel reading from Matthew, in which the apostle recounts Jesus’ reinterpretation of the traditional works of piety put forth in the Mosaic law: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Over the course of time, “these requirements have been eroded by the rust of external formalism, or were even changed into a sign of social superiority,” the Pope said.
However, in the Gospel, Jesus warns his disciples against common temptations surrounding these pious works when he tells them to “perform righteous deeds” in secret rather than in front of others, and not to “blow a trumpet” when the give alms.
Jesus also cautions his disciples not to pray in front of others so as to attract attention, and tells them not to “look gloomy” when they fast, lest they be like the hypocrites.
Hypocrites, Francis said, “don’t know how to cry. They have forgotten how to cry. They don’t ask for the gift of tears.”
Pope Francis noted that when we perform a good work, there is often an almost “instinctive” reaction to look for respect and admiration for it. Jesus’ invitation during Lent is instead to let go of our desire for satisfaction when performing good works, and trust in the reward we will receive in heaven.
“Dear brothers and sisters, the Lord does not ever tire of having mercy on us, and wants to offer us his forgiveness still one more time, inviting us to return to him with a new heart, purified from evil, so as to take part in his joy,” the Pope said.
But welcoming this invitation to conversion takes more than just our human effort, he said, explaining that reconciliation with God can only be achieved thanks to the mercy and love of the Father.
Only in Christ, who died for our sins even though he himself was sinless, can we ourselves become just, Francis said, asking those present, “Please, let’s stop. Let’s pause a little and let ourselves be reconciled with God.”
Pope Francis closed his homily by noting that as Lent begins, the phrases “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” are said along with the distribution of the ashes.
Both of these lines are a reminder that as human beings, we are limited and are sinners always in need of penance and conversion, Francis noted.
The call to conversion, he said, “is therefore a push to return, as did the son of the parable, to the arms of God and to cry in those arms, to trust him and to trust in him.”