Benedict XIV began Wednesday's public audience with a few words about his shocking announcement that he is stepping down from the See of Peter at the end of this month. He asked for continued prayer, and said that he has felt "almost physically" the "power of prayer that the love of the Church, your prayer, is bringing me."
"I did this in full freedom for the good of the Church, after having prayed at length and having examined my conscience before God, well aware of the seriousness of the act, but equally conscious of no longer being able to carry out the Petrine ministry with the strength that it requires," he said. "I am supported and enlightened by the certainty that the Church is Christ, who will never allow it to lack his leadership and care. Thank you all for the love and prayer with which you have accompanied me."
The Holy Father then turned his attention to the reflection at hand: the beginning of Lent and Ash Wednesday. He based his address on this Sunday's Gospel, which recounts Christ's temptations in the desert.
"Reflecting on the temptations undergone by Jesus in the desert is an invitation for each of us to answer a fundamental question: What is truly important in our lives?," he said.
The Pope observed that the common denominator in the devil's three attempts to tempt Christ is "the proposal to manipulate God, to use Him for one's own interests, for one's own glory and success. And, in essence, to put oneself in the place of God, removing Him from one's life and making Him seem superfluous."
Thus, Benedict said, "Everyone should then ask himself: What is God's role in my life? Is He the Lord or am I?"
The Pontiff said that conversion, that is "follow[ing] Jesus in such a way that his Gospel is a real guide for life [...] recognizing that we are creatures who depend on God, on His love -- is something that in today's society must be confirmed over and over again.
"Today one can no longer be Christian as a simple consequence of living in a society with Christian roots," he said. "Even those who come from Christian families, and are brought up religiously must renew every day the choice to be Christian."
The Holy Father reflected that with the temptations of secularism and criticism from many corners, Christians face tests in both their personal and social life.
For example, he said, "It is not easy to be faithful to Christian marriage, to practice mercy in everyday life, to leave space for prayer and inner silence, it is not easy to publicly oppose choices that many consider obvious, such as abortion in the event of an unwanted pregnancy, euthanasia in the case of serious illness, or the selection of embryos to prevent hereditary diseases. The temptation to set aside one's faith is always present and conversion becomes a response to God which must be confirmed repeatedly in life."
Nevertheless, Benedict XVI said there are many modern examples of those who have converted and allowed God to guide their lives. "The Lord never gets tired of knocking at the door of man in social and cultural contexts that seem swallowed up by secularization," he affirmed.
He spoke of a Russian Orthodox scientist, Pavel Florensky, who became a monk. And a girl of Jewish origin who found God in the midst of the Holocaust. He pointed to the example of the American Dorothy Day. "The journey of faith in so secularized an environment was particularly difficult," the Pope said, "but Grace acts all the same." And there are numerous people who return to the faith after falling away, he continued.
"Our inner man must prepare itself to be visited by God, and precisely for this reason should not let itself be invaded by illusions, by appearances, by material things."
Benedict XVI concluded by inviting a renewed commitment to conversion during Lent in this Year of Faith.
"We might say that the choice between closing in on our egoism and opening to the love of God and others, corresponds to the alternatives in Jesus' temptations: the choice, that is, between human power and love of the Cross, between a redemption viewed solely as material well-being and redemption as the work of God, to whom we give the first place in life," he said. "Conversion means not closing in on oneself in the pursuit of one's own success, one's own prestige, one's own position, but making sure that every day, in the small things, truth, faith in God, and love become the most important thing."
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