On the Threshold of Lent

The great Catholic writer Georges Bernanos once said that, «the world will be saved only by free men. We must make a world for free men.» He wrote those words nearly 70 years ago in the wake of a terrible world war. He understood from painful experience that man is made for God — and without faith, there can be no real freedom, only distractions and idolatries that eventually consume man himself.

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The humility to recognize who we are as creatures; who God is as a loving Father; what God asks from each of us; and the reality of God’s love for other human persons as well as ourselves – this is the foundation that our Catholic faith brings to every conversation about human meaning and purpose. The Book of Sirach, the Psalms, the Gospel of Luke, the Letter of James: These Scriptures move the human heart not simply because they’re beautiful writings. Rather, they’re beautiful writings because they spring from what we know in our hearts to be true. God is real, and faith matters. Again and again, for our own good and happiness, Scripture calls on us not just to repent and turn to God, but also to act accordingly in every aspect of our daily lives.

The words of Georges Bernanos from decades ago are just as relevant today for Christians living in a world increasingly marked by unbelief. As Catholics, we’re most truly «free,» and we most truly serve the common good, by having the courage to be disciples of Jesus Christ, both in our personal lives and in our public actions. God gave us a free will, but we need to use it. Discipleship has a cost, and Jesus never asked us to be invisible or silent. Quite the opposite.

Helping people in the work of personal conversion and their public witness of justice and charity is the task of the Church. And this is why immersing our hearts in the whole liturgical cycle of Christian life – in effect, its rhythm — is so important.

Next week, on February 18, we begin the journey of the Lenten liturgical season with Ash Wednesday. It’s a moment of hope, not sadness. Lent is a time when God invites all of us to enter into a deeper relationship with himself. We pursue that through prayer, fasting, acts of mercy and justice, and a return to the Sacrament of Penance. All of us, in different ways, are burdened down by past sins we can’t take back, searching for forgiveness and healing, but unable — or more often, unwilling — to let ourselves trust in the goodness of God.

Lent is our pilgrimage to Calvary, and beyond that, to Easter and abundant life. Jesus came to save us; to give us real freedom; to show us that our lives have meaning; that God loves us; that despite all our sins, no matter how dark, he treasures us as his daughters and sons; that suffering has a purpose; that each person no matter how infirm or disabled has dignity; and that death — which is subject to God’s sovereignty, not ours — is never the end of who we are.

«Repent and believe in the Gospel.» Those are the first words Jesus speaks to the people of his time in the Gospel of Mark (1:15), and he says them just as urgently now, in these last few days before Lent, to each one of us. The realfreedom every human heart thirsts for, and the world so desperately needs, is a big thing that hinges on a seemingly «little» thing: our own personal turning away from sin and toward God, not just with our words but with our whole lives.

This is the invitation Lent places before each of us. What we do with it depends on us.

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Charles J. Chaput

Archbishop of Philadelphia

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