February 24, 2007


The Pope’s Message for Lent A.D. 2007

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

"They shall look on Him whom they have pierced" (Jn. 19:37). This is the biblical theme that this year guides our Lenten reflection. Lent is a favorable time to learn to stay with Mary and John, the beloved disciple, close to Him who on the Cross, consummated for all mankind the sacrifice of His life (cf. Jn. 19:25). With a more fervent participation let us direct our gaze, therefore, in this time of penance and prayer, at Christ crucified who, dying on Calvary, revealed fully for us the love of God. In the Encyclical Deus caritas est, I dwelt upon this theme of love, highlighting its two fundamental forms: agape and eros.

God's love: agape and eros

The term agape, which appears many times in the New Testament, indicates the self-giving love of one who looks exclusively for the good of the other. The word eros, on the other hand, denotes the love of one who desires to possess what he or she lacks and yearns for union with the beloved. The love with which God surrounds us is undoubtedly agape. Indeed, can man give to God some good that He does not already possess? All that the human creature is and has is divine gift. It is the creature then, who is in need of God in everything. But God's love is also eros. In the Old Testament, the Creator of the universe manifests toward the people whom He has chosen as His own a predilection that transcends every human motivation. The prophet Hosea expresses this divine passion with daring images such as the love of a man for an adulterous woman (cf. 3:1-3). For his part, Ezekiel, speaking of God's relationship with the people of Israel, is not afraid to use strong and passionate language (cf. 16:1-22). These biblical texts indicate that eros is part of God's very heart: the Almighty awaits the "yes" of His creatures as a young bridegroom that of his bride. Unfortunately, from its very origins, mankind, seduced by the lies of the Evil One, rejected God's love in the illusion of a self-sufficiency that is impossible (cf. Gn. 3:1-7). Turning in on himself, Adam withdrew from that source of life who is God Himself, and became the first of "those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage" (Heb. 2:15). God, however, did not give up. On the contrary, man's "no" was the decisive impulse that moved Him [God] to manifest His love in all of its redeeming strength.

The Cross reveals the fullness of God's love

It is in the mystery of the Cross that the overwhelming power of the heavenly Father's mercy is revealed in all of its fullness. In order to win back the love of His creature, He accepted to pay a very high price: the blood of His only begotten Son. Death, which for the first Adam was an extreme sign of loneliness and powerlessness, was thus transformed in the supreme act of love and freedom of the new Adam. One could very well assert, therefore, together with Saint Maximus the Confessor, that Christ "died, if one could say so, divinely, because He died freely" (Ambigua, 91, 1956). On the Cross, God's eros for us is made manifest. Eros is indeed— as Pseudo-Dionysius expresses it— that force "that does not allow the lover to remain in himself but moves him to become one with the beloved" (De divinis nominibus, IV, 13: PG 3, 712). Is there more "mad eros" (N. Cabasilas, Vita in Cristo, 648) than that which led the Son of God to make Himself one with us even to the point of suffering as His own the consequences of our offenses?

"Him whom they have pierced"

Dear brothers and sisters, let us look at Christ pierced on the Cross! He is the unsurpassable revelation of God's love, a love in which eros and agape, far from being opposed, enlighten each other. On the Cross, it is God Himself who begs the love of His creature: He is thirsty for the love of every one of us. The Apostle Thomas recognized Jesus as "Lord and God" when he put his hand into the wound of His side. Not surprisingly, many of the saints found in the Heart of Jesus the deepest expression of this mystery of love. One could rightly say that the revelation of God's eros toward man is, in reality, the supreme expression of His agape. In all truth, only the love that unites the free gift of oneself with the impassioned desire for reciprocity instills a joy, which eases the heaviest of burdens. Jesus said, "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself" (Jn. 12:32). The response the Lord ardently desires of us is above all that we welcome His love and allow ourselves to be drawn to Him. Accepting His love, however, is not enough. We need to respond to such love and devote ourselves to communicating it to others. Christ "draws me to Himself" in order to unite Himself to me, so that I learn to love the brothers with His own love.

Blood and water

"They shall look on Him whom they have pierced." Let us look with trust at the pierced side of Jesus from which flow "blood and water" (Jn. 19:34)! The Fathers of the Church considered these elements as symbols of the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Through the water of Baptism, thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit, we are given access to the intimacy of Trinitarian love. In the Lenten journey, memorial of our Baptism, we are exhorted to come out of ourselves in order to open ourselves, in trustful abandonment, to the merciful embrace of the Father (cf. Saint John Chrysostom, Catecheses, 3,14ff). Blood, symbol of the love of the Good Shepherd, flows into us especially in the Eucharistic mystery: "The Eucharist draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation… we enter into the very dynamic of His self-giving" (Encyclical Deus caritas est, 13). Let us live Lent then, as a "Eucharistic" time in which, welcoming the love of Jesus, we learn to spread it around us with every word and deed. Contemplating "Him whom they have pierced" moves us in this way to open our hearts to others, recognizing the wounds inflicted upon the dignity of the human person; it moves us, in particular, to fight every form of contempt for life and human exploitation and to alleviate the tragedies of loneliness and abandonment of so many people. May Lent be for every Christian a renewed experience of God's love given to us in Christ, a love that each day we, in turn, must "re-give" to our neighbor, especially to the one who suffers most and is in need. Only in this way will we be able to participate fully in the joy of Easter. May Mary, Mother of Beautiful Love, guide us in this Lenten journey, a journey of authentic conversion to the love of Christ. I wish you, dear brothers and sisters, a fruitful Lenten journey, imparting with affection to all of you, a special Apostolic Blessing.


February 21, 2007

How to Do: Ashes, Fasting, Abstinence

In the U.S.A. on Ash Wednesday, we usually smear ashes on the forehead in the form of a cross.

However, it does not have to be done that way.

When I was a student in Rome I personally received ashes from Pope John Paul II. During the distribution of ashes he remained seated. Those of us who were to receive ashes from him came to him and knelt down. He took a pinch of ashes between his fingers and dropped them onto the tops of our heads.

One monk received enough ashes to spill from the top of his head onto his shoulders. We all told him, "The Pope wants everyone to know you are the biggest sinner of all."

Certainly the Biblical practice of wearing ashes was to drop them onto the top of one's head, not to smear them onto the forehead.

My classmates from the various European countries told me that ashes on the top of the head was the only way they had ever seen the practice, not ashes on the forehead.

And as for fasting....

The bishops of the U.S.A. issued guidelines years ago telling us that we could fast by eating one normal meal a day, but allow two other "snacks" (with the goal I understand to eat less than what amounts to two complete meals). Well, a meal and two snacks really is not fasting ... rather, it's EATING.

Biblical Jewish fasting, and fasting as understood in the earliest days of the Church was: eating only once a day-- and doing it after sunset.

I would guess that when Islam came along, Islam borrowed the Judeo-Christian practice of fasting by eating nothing until sunset. However, during the Islamic season of fasting, "Ramadan," when sunset arrives it is PARTY TIME. In the city of Cairo, the markets sell more food during Ramadan than at any other time of year.

Today the Church obligates us to fast only on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. However, the Church's Latin name for the season that begins with Ash Wednesday still is "Quadragesima"-- referring to FORTY days of fasting.

Fasting in the classical way could be dangerous for some modern Americans due to the fact many drive on highways at speeds not possible in the early Church. Classical fasting can make you light-headed, and you can even faint.

A manageable "compromise" for the safety of commuters? Rather than fasting/eating by scheduling one meal and two snacks, I would propose the following: one meal divided into three parts.

Remember also that classical fasting is always fasting AND abstinence from meat. We're SUPPOSED to do without. Along those lines, I would propose that when fasting you drink no other liquid than plain water. Come on! It's supposed to be penitential.

And what about abstinence from meat?

The definition of "abstinence from meat" is NOT: "go eat fish". To abstain from meat is simply to do without meat.

Nonetheless, the Church does allow us to eat fish when we are abstaining from meat. Where does this "substitution" practice come from?

St. Benedict (who died in A.D. 547) described abstinence from meat as not eating the flesh of four-legged animals. Consider that raising four-legged animals for their meat requires owning sufficient land for pasture to feed those animals. However, poultry can be kept in small yards, and require much less food to survive on than four-legged animals. Fish can just be caught from the wild, with no one needing to "raise" or feed them. In St. Benedict's day, four-legged meat was definitely a luxury food item, and it still is in many parts of the world. Abstinence from meat is a matter of eating like a poor person.

Today in the U.S.A., fish can cost as much as or more than certain cuts of meat. Here, where adequate protein (even excessive protein) is an everyday fact of life for the vast majority, I would propose that abstinence from meat ought to be abstinence from eating the flesh of any animal no matter how many legs or fins it might have.


St. Benedict allowed the sick to eat four-legged meat. The Church does not impose fasting on the young (including those in the womb, so their pregnant mothers also), the elderly, and the sick.

If your health is adequate for the classical fast and literal abstinence, go for it.