At 11 o’clock this morning, the Holy Father Francis met with Parish Priests and Priests of the Diocese of Rome, in the Papal Basilica of Saint John Lateran, for the traditional appointment at the beginning of Lent. On his arrival at the Basilica, the Pope heard the Confessions of some priests.
After the greeting of H.E. Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, Vicar General of His Holiness for the Diocese of Rome, the Holy Father gave the meditation, which we translate below.
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The Holy Father’s Meditation
Good morning to you all.
It’s always good to meet again here, ever year, at the beginning of Lent, for this liturgy of God’s forgiveness. It does us good — it does me good also! — and I feel great peace in my heart, now that each one of us has received God’s mercy and has given it to others, his brothers. We live this moment for what it really is, an extraordinary grace, a permanent miracle of divine tenderness, in which once again God’s Reconciliation, sister of Baptism, moves us, washes us with tears, regenerates us, restores to us the original beauty.
This peace and this gratitude that go up from our heart to the Lord helps us to understand how the entire Church and each one of her children lives and grows, thanks to God’s Mercy. The Bride of the Lamb becomes “without spot or wrinkle” (Ephesians 5:27) by the gift of God, her beauty is the point of arrival of a journey of purification and transfiguration, namely, of an exodus to which the Lord invites her permanently: “Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14). We must never cease to put ourselves mutually on guard against the temptation to self-sufficiency and self-satisfaction, as if we were People of God by our initiative or by our merit. This turning in on ourselves is very bad and will always do us harm: be it self-sufficiency in doing or the sin of the mirror, self-satisfaction: “How nice I am! How good I am!” We aren’t People of God by our initiative, by our merit. No, truly, we are and will always be the fruit of the Lord’s merciful action: a proud People rendered little by God’s humility, a miserable People — let’s not be afraid to say this word: “I’m miserable” — made rich by God’s poverty, a cursed People made just by Him who made Himself “Accursed” hanging on the wood of the cross (Cf. Galatians 3:13). Let’s never forget it: ”apart from Me you can do nothing!” (John 15:5) I repeat it, the Master has said to us: “without me you can do nothing!” And so the thing changes; it’s not I that I look at in the mirror, I’m not the centre of activities, even the center of prayer, so often . . . No, no, He is the center, I am in the periphery. He is the center, it is He who does everything, and this requires from us a holy passivity — what isn’t holy is laziness no, not that — a holy passivity before God, before Jesus especially; it’s He who does things.
See why this time of Lent is truly a grace: it enables us to place ourselves before God letting Him be all. His love raises us from the dust (remember that without Me you are dust, the Lord said to us yesterday), His Spirit blows once again in our noses, gives us the life of the risen. The hand of God, which created us in the image and likeness of His Trinitarian Mystery, has made us many in unity, different but inseparable from one another. God’s forgiveness, which we celebrated today, is strength that re-establishes communion at all levels: among us presbyters in the one diocesan presbytery; with all Christians, in the one Body that is the Church; with all men, in the unity of the human family. The Lord introduces us to one another and says to us: behold your brother, “bone of your bone, flesh of your flesh” (Cf. Genesis 2:23), he with whom you are called to live “love that never ends” (I Corinthians 13:8).
For these seven years of the diocesan journey of pastoral conversion, which separates us from the Jubilee of 2025 (we have arrived at the second) I’ve proposed to you as paradigm the Book of Exodus. The Lord acts, then as today, and transforms a “non-people” into People of God. This is His desire and also His plan for us.
Well, what does the Lord do when He must see with sadness that Israel is a “stiff-necked” people (Exodus 32:9), “inclined to evil (Exodus 32:22), as in the episode of the golden calf, He begins a patient work of reconciliation, a wise pedagogy, in which He threatens and consoles, makes one aware of the consequences of the evil done and decides to forget the sin, punishes, striking the people and healing the wound He has inflicted. In fact in the text of Exodus 32-34, which you will propose in Lent for your community’s meditation, the Lord seems to have taken a radical decision: “I will not go up among you” (Exodus 33:3). When the Lord closes Himself, distances Himself, we have experienced this in awful moments of spiritual desolation. If one of you has not experienced these moments, I advise you to go to speak to a good Confessor, to a Spiritual Father, because you are lacking something in life. I don’t know what it is but to not have desolation . . . isn’t normal, I’d say it’s not Christina. We have these moments. I will no longer walk before you; I will send my Angel (Cf. Exodus 32:34) to precede you on the way, but I won’t come. When the Lord leaves us alone, without His presence, and we are in the parish, we are working and we feel ourselves employees but without the Lord’s presence, in desolation . . . Not only in consolation, in desolation. Think about this.
On the other hand the people, perhaps because of impatience or feeling themselves abandoned (because Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain) had put aside the prophet chosen by God and asked Aaron to make an idol, a mute image of God, to walk ahead of them. The people didn’t tolerate Moses’ absence they are in desolation and don’t tolerate and immediately seek another God to be comfortable. Sometimes, when we don’t have desolation, it might be that we have idols. “No, I’m fine, with this, I can manage on my own . . . “The sadness of God’s abandonment never comes. What does the Lord do when we “cut Him out” — with idols — from the life of our communities, because we are convinced that we are sufficient unto ourselves? In that moment, I’m the idol: “No, I manage myself . . . Thank you . . .Don’t worry, I can manage. And one doesn’t feel that need for the Lord; one doesn’t feel the desolation of the Lord’s absence.
But the Lord is clever! The reconciliation that He wills to offer the people will be a lesson that the Israelites will remember forever. God behaves like a rejected lover: if in fact you don’t want Me, then I’m leaving! And He leaves us alone. It’s true, we can make do on our own for some time, six months, a year, two years, three years, even more. At a certain point this bursts. If we go ahead on our own this self-sufficiency bursts; this self-satisfaction of solitude, and it bursts badly, it bursts badly. I think of the case of a good, good Religious priest, whom I knew well. He was brilliant. If there was a problem in a community, the Superiors thought of him to resolve the problem: a college, a university, he was good, good. However, he was a devotee of the “holy mirror”: he looked at himself so much. And God was good to him. One day He made him feel that he was alone in life, that he had lost so much. And he didn’t dare say to the Lord: “But I’ve systematized this thing, that other one and that other . . .” No, he realized immediately that he was alone. And the greatest grace the Lord can give, for me the greatest grace: that man wept — the grace of crying. He cried for the lost time, he cried because the holy mirror didn’t give him what he expected of himself. And he started from scratch, humbly. When the Lord goes away, because we shoo Him out, it’s necessary to ask for the gift of tears, to cry over the Lord’s absence. “You don’t want me, so I’m going,” says the Lord and over time what happened to that priest, happens.
Let us return to Exodus. The effect is that expected: “When the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned; and no man put on his ornaments” (Exodus 33:4). It did not escape the Israelites that no punishment is as heavy as this divine decision that contradicts His Holy Name; “I Am Who I Am!” (Exodus 3:14): expression that has a concrete, not abstract meaning, translatable, perhaps, as “I Am He Who Is and will be here, next to you.” When you realize that He has left, because you have shooed Him out, it’s a grace to feel this. If you don’t realize it, there is suffering. The angel isn’t a solution; he would be, rather, the permanent witness of God’s absence. Therefore, the people’s reaction is sadness. This is another dangerous thing, because there is a good sadness and a bad sadness. It’s necessary to discern there, in moments of sadness: what is my sadness? From where does it come? Sometimes it’s good, it comes from God, from God’s absence, as in this case, and at other times it’s self-satisfaction, that too, no?
What would we feel if the Risen Lord said to us: go ahead with your ecclesial activities and your liturgies, but I will no longer be present and act in your sacraments? From the moment that, when you make your decisions you base yourselves on worldly and not evangelical criteria (tamquan Deus non esset), then I make myself totally apart . . . Everything would be empty, deprived of meaning, it would be nothing other than “dust.” God’s threat opens the passage to the intuition of what our life would be without Him, if He truly removed His Face forever. It’s death, despair, hell: apart from Me you can do nothing.
The Lord shows us, once again, on the living flesh of the unmasking of our hypocrisy, what His Mercy truly is. To Moses God reveals His Glory and His Holy Name on the mountain: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and fidelity” (Exodus 34:6). In the “game of love” brought forward by God, made of threatened absence and restored presence – “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14). God brings about reconciliation with His People. Israel comes out of this painful experience, which will mark it forever, with a new maturity: it’s more aware of who the God is that has liberated it from Egypt; it’s more lucid in understanding the various dangers of the journey (we can say: it’s more afraid of itself than of the serpents of the desert!). This is good: to be a bit afraid of ourselves, of our omnipotence, of our cleverness, our hidden things, of our double play . . . a bit of fear. <It would be good>, if it were possible, to be more afraid of this than of serpents, because this is a real poison. And so the people are more united around Moses and the Word of God that he proclaims. The experience of sin and of God’s forgiveness is what enabled Israel to become a bit more the People that belong to God. We engaged in this Penitential Liturgy and we had the experience of our sins; and to say sin is something that opens us to God’s mercy, because usually sin is hidden. We hide our sin not only from God, not only from our neighbour, not only from the priest but from ourselves. “Cosmetics” has gone so far ahead in this <area>: we are specialists in ‘making up’ the situations. “Yes, but it’s not so, you understand . . . “ And a bit of water to wash off the cosmetics does everyone good, to see that we’re not so beautiful: we are ugly, ugly also in our things. However, without despairing because God, who is always behind us, is clement and merciful. It’s His mercy that accompanies us.
Dear brothers, this is the meaning of Lent that we will live. In the Spiritual Exercises that you will preach to the people of your communities, in the Penitential Liturgies that you will celebrate, have the courage to propose the Lord’s reconciliation, to propose His passionate and jealous love.
Our role is like that of Moses: a generous service to the work of God’s reconciliation, to “play the game” of His love.
The way God involves Moses is beautiful; He treats him truly as His friend: first He prepares him before he comes down from the mountain, warning him of the people’s perversion; He accepts that <Moses> is the intercessor of his brothers; He listens to him while <Moses> reminds Him of the oath that He, God, made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We can imagine that God smiled when Moses invited Him not to contradict Himself, and not make a bad impression in the eyes of the Egyptians and not to be less than their gods, to have respect for His Holy Name. He provokes Him with the dialectic of responsibility: “Your people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt,” so Moses answers stressing that no, the people belong to God, it is He who made them come out of Egypt . . . And this is a mature dialogue with the Lord. When we see that the people that we serve in the parish, or wherever, have turned away, we have this tendency to say: “It’s my people, it’s my people.” Yes, they are your people but vicariously, we say this: the people are His! And then go to reprove them: “Look what your people are doing? <Have> this dialogue with the Lord. However, God’s heart exulted with joy when He heard Moses’ words ”If Thou will forgive their sin [. . .] if not, blot me out of thy book which thou hast written!: (Exodus 32:32). And this is one of the most beautiful things of a priest, of the priest who goes before the Lord and puts his face for his people. “It’s your people, not mine, and You must forgive “ – “No, but … I’m leaving! I won’t speak with you anymore. Blot me out.” One needs “trousers” to speak thus with God! But we must speak like this, as men, not as fainthearted ones, <but> as men! Because this means that I’m aware of the place I have in the Church, that I’m not an administrator, put there to carry forward something in an orderly way. It means that I believe, that I have faith. Try to speak this way with God.
I must die for the people, to share the destiny of the people no matter what happens, to my dying. Moses didn’t accept God’s proposal; he didn’t accept corruption. God pretends that He wants to corrupt him. He didn’t accept. ”No, I’m not up to this. I’m with the people — with Your people. God’s proposal was: “Let Me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation” (Exodus 32:10) — behold the “corruption.” But how, is God the corrupter? He is trying to see the heart of His pastor. Moses doesn’t want to save himself: now he is one with his brothers. Perhaps each one of us might arrive at this point, perhaps! It’s awful when a priest goes to the Bishop to complain about his people: :”Ah, it can’t be done, these people don’t understand anything and so on, and so forth . . . time is thrown away . . .” It’s awful! What is that man lacking? So many things are lacking in that priest! Moses didn’t do this. He didn’t want to save himself because he was one with his brothers. Here the Father saw the face of the Son. The light of the Spirit of God invaded Moses’ face and traced on his face the lines of the Risen Crucified One, rendering it luminous. And when we go there, to struggle with God — our Father Abraham also did it, that struggle with God — when we go there we make it seen that we are like Jesus, who gave His life for His people. And the Father smiles: He will see in us Jesus’ look who went to death for us, for the Father’s people — for us. The heart of God’s friend is not fully dilated, become great — Moses, God’s friend — similar to God’s heart, much greater than the human heart (Cf. 1 John 3:18). Moses truly became the friend that speaks with God face to face (Cf. Exodus 33:11). Face to face! This is when the Bishop or the Spiritual Father asks a priest if he prays: “Yes, yes, I . . . I manage with the mother-in-law — the mother-in-law is the Breviary — yes, I manage, I do the Praises, then . . .” No, no. If you pray, what does it mean? <It means that> you put your face for the people before God; <that> you go to fight for your people with God. This is what praying is for a priest. It’s not to do prescriptions. “Ah, Father, is the Breviary no longer necessary? No, the Breviary is necessary, but with this attitude. You are there, before God and your people are behind you. And Moses is also the custodian of God’s Glory, of God’s secrets. He contemplated the Glory from behind, he heard His true Name on the mountain, he understood His love of Father.
Dear brothers, ours is an enormous privilege! God knows our “shameful nakedness.” It struck me so much when I saw the original of the [Virgin] Hodgitria of Bari: it’s not as it is now, somewhat dressed with the clothes that Eastern Christians put on the icon. It’s Our Lady with the naked Child. It pleased me so much that the Bishop of Bari made me own one of these; he gave it to me, and I put it there, in front of my door. And I like it — I say it to share an experience –. In the morning, when I get up, when I pass in front of Her, I like to ask Our Lady to guard my nakedness: “Mother, you know all my nakedness.” This is a great thing: to ask the Lord — from my nakedness — to ask Him to guard my bareness. He knows them all. God knows our “shameful nakedness,” and yet He doesn’t tire of making use of us to offer reconciliation to men. We are very poor, sinners, yet God takes us to intercede for our brothers and to give men, through our anything but innocent hands, the salvation that regenerates.
Sin disfigures us, and we have the humiliating experience of it when we ourselves or one of our brother priests or Bishops falls into the bottomless chasm of vice, of corruption, or, still worse, of the crime that destroys others’ life. I wish to share with you the unbearable pain and sorrow caused in us and in all the ecclesial body by the wave of scandals that the newspapers of the whole world are now full. It’s obvious that the real meaning of what’s happening is to be found in the spirit of evil, in the Enemy, who acts with the pretext of being the master of the world, as I said in the Eucharistic Liturgy at the end of the Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church (February 24, 2019). Yet we must not be discouraged! The Lord is purifying His Bride and is converting all to Himself. He is making us experience the test so that we understand that, without Him, we are dust. He is saving us from hypocrisy, from the spirituality of appearance. He is blowing His Spirit to give back beauty to His Bride, taken in flagrant adultery. It will do us good to take up today chapter 16 of Ezekiel. This is the history of the Church. This is my history, each one of us can say. Our humble repentance, which remains silent amid the tears in face of the monstrosity of sin and the unfathomable grandeur of God’s forgiveness, this, this humble repentance is the beginning of our holiness.
Don’t be afraid to stake your life at the service of reconciliation between God and men: we haven’t been given any other secret greatness than this giving of our life so that men can know His love. A priest’s life is often marked by incomprehension, silent sufferings, sometimes persecutions, and also sins that he alone knows. The lacerations between brothers of our community, the non-acceptance of the evangelical Word, the contempt of the poor, the resentment fueled by reconciliations that never happened, the scandal aroused by the shameful conduct of some brethren, all this can rob us of sleep and leave us impotent. Instead, we believe in the patient guidance of God, who does things in His own time. Let us enlarge our heart and put ourselves at the service of the Word of reconciliation.
Let us propose to our communities what we lived today in this Cathedral. In the penitential liturgies that we will live in Parishes and in Prefectures in this season of Lent, each one will ask God and brothers for forgiveness of the sin that has undermined ecclesial communion and suffocated missionary dynamism. With humility, which is a characteristic proper to the heart of God, but which is so hard for us to make our own, we confess to one another that we are in need of God reshaping our life. You be the first to ask for forgiveness from your brothers “To accuse oneself is a wise beginning linked to fear of God” (Ibid.) It will be a good sign if, as we did today, each one of us goes to Confession to a brother also in the penitential liturgies in the parish, before the eyes of the faithful. We will have a luminous face, as Moses, if with moved eyes we speak to others of the mercy that was given to us. It’s the way, there is no other. Thus we’ll see the demon of pride fall, as lightning from Heaven, there will be the miracle of reconciliation in our communities. We will feel we are a bit more the People that belong to the Lord, in whose midst God walks. This is the way.
And I wish you a good Lent!
Now I would like to add something that I was asked to do. One of the concrete ways to live a Lent of charity is to contribute generously to the campaign “As In Heaven, so in the Street,” with which our diocesan Caritas intends to respond to all forms of poverty, receiving and supporting those in need. I know that every year you respond generously to this appeal, but this year I ask you make a greater commitment, so that the whole community and all communities are truly involved personally.
Cardinal De Donatis:
A word now for delivering this booklet: Pope Francis is giving it to you. It’s the small volume that will accompany us in Lent, as second reading, as we did last year: the same dimension of the Breviary, thus we will be helped to have it close. And, therefore, the Prefects will distribute these volumes to all. Perhaps you can take it also for those who aren’t present. Thank you. In the name of all, I truly say thank you with all my heart to you, who have come today as <you do> every year. What I can say to you, on behalf of all, in addition to thank you, is that we continue to support you with our daily prayer.
I need this; I need prayer. Pray for me. One of the things I like about this [booklet] is the richness of the Fathers: to turn to the Fathers. A short time ago, a book was presented in a parish in Rome. I think it’s called “Need of Paternity.” They are all texts of the Fathers according to different subjects: the virtues, the Church . . . It helps us so much to turn to the Father because <they are> a great richness. Thank you.