Ash Wednesday Reflection on Meaning of Prayer and Fasting

“We Acknowledge Ourselves Sinners,” Says John Paul II

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 5, 2003 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to the spirit of Ash Wednesday. Earlier he had proclaimed this a day of prayer and fasting for peace.

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1. Today, Ash Wednesday, the liturgy addresses to all the faithful an intense invitation to conversion with the words of the apostle Paul: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Lent is the most propitious time, spiritually, to receive this exhortation, as it is a time of more intense prayer, of penance and of greater attention to the needs of brothers.

With today’s rite of the imposition of ashes, we acknowledge ourselves sinners, invoke the forgiveness of God, manifesting a sincere desire for conversion. Thus we begin an austere ascetic journey, which will lead us to the Easter triduum, heart of the liturgical year.

2. In keeping with the tradition of the Church, all the faithful are obliged today to abstain from meats and to fast, with the sole exception of those who are impeded for reasons of health or age. Fasting has great value in the life of Christians, it is a need of the spirit to relate better to God. In fact, the external aspects of fasting, though important, do not exhaust such a practice. Joined to it is a sincere desire for interior purification, willingness to obey the divine will, and thoughtful solidarity toward brothers, particularly the poorest.

There is, then, a close link between fasting and prayer. To pray is to listen to God and fasting favors this openness of heart.

3. While we enter in the time of Lent, we cannot but be conscious of the present international context, in which threatening tensions of war are agitated. It is necessary that everyone consciously assume responsibility and engage in a common effort to spare humanity another dramatic conflict. For this reason, I wanted today, Ash Wednesday, to be a day of prayer and fasting to implore for peace in the world. Above all, we must ask God for conversion of heart, in which every form of evil and every thrust toward sin is rooted; we must pray and fast for peaceful coexistence among peoples and nations.

At the beginning of our meeting we heard the encouraging words of the Prophet: “One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again” (Isaiah 2:4). And again: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Ibid.). Above the upheavals of history is the sovereign presence of God, who judges the choices of men. To him [who] “judge[s] between the nations” and “impose[s] terms on many peoples” (Ibid.) we turn our hearts to implore for a future of justice and peace for all. This thought should stimulate each one of us to continue in an incessant prayer and in energetic commitment to construct a world in which egoism gives way to solidarity and love.

4. I also wished to propose again the urgent invitation to conversion, penance and solidarity in the Message for Lent, made known a few days ago, whose theme is the beautiful phrase of the Acts of the Apostles: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (see 20:35).

In fact, only by converting to this logic can a social order be constructed characterized not by a precarious balance of conflicting interests, but by a just and common search for the common good. Christians, as leaven, are called to live and spread a style of generosity in every realm of life, thus promoting the authentic moral and civil development of society. In this connection, I have written: “To deprive oneself not only of the superfluous, but even of something more to distribute it to those in need, contributes to that denial of self without which there is no authentic practice of Christian life” (No. 4: [daily] L’Osservatore Romano, Feb. 7, 2003, p. 5).

5. May this day of prayer and fasting for peace, with which we begin Lent, be translated in concrete gestures of reconciliation. From the family to the international realm, may each one feel and make himself co-responsible for the construction of peace. And the God of peace, who knows the intentions of the heart and calls his children peacemakers (see Matthew 5:9), will not be lacking in his recompense (see Matthew 6:4,6,18).

We entrust our wishes to the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Queen of the Rosary and Mother of Peace. May she take us by the hand and accompany us during the next 40 days toward Easter, to contemplate the Risen Lord.

I wish everyone a good and fruitful Lent!

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father gave this summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Ash Wednesday is a day marked by fasting and abstinence. These practices involve important external aspects, but they must also include internal purification, readiness to obey the will of God, and solidarity with all people, especially the poorest.

As we begin our Lenten journey this year, we cannot ignore the tense international situation. For this reason, I have called for this Ash Wednesday to be a Day of Prayer and Fasting for Peace. By conversion of heart, penance, and solidarity, we will become true peacemakers, both in our own families and in the world. Let us entrust this endeavor of ours to Mary, Queen of the Holy Rosary and Mother of Peace. May she take us by the hand and lead us to the glory of Easter.

I am pleased to greet the English-speaking pilgrims present today, especially those from England, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Japan, and the United States of America. Upon all of you I invoke the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. May everyone have a blessed and fruitful season of Lent!

[Original English text distributed by Vatican press office]

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