Ash Wednesday begins the Catholic season of Lent, a time of examining our consciences, confessing and repenting our sins, and working to change the direction of our lives back toward God through prayer, self-sacrifice, and charitable acts to others.
All of us have personal ways of doing that. A friend of mine has the habit every Lent of listening to an audio version of Dante Alighieri’s 14th century Divine Comedy from start to finish. The Comedy — Dante’s imagined journey into the pit of hell (Inferno), then up through purgatory (Purgatorio) to heaven and the beatific vision (Paradiso) — is one of the great achievements of Western civilization.
For busy people distracted by work, bills, and family, though, reading it is often impossible. Listening to it on CD is a much easier matter. Spoken by the late poet John Ciardi, or performed by an ensemble BBC cast, the Comedy comes alive in a powerful — and in the Inferno, hair-raising — way. Dante understands the human heart, our capacity for both good and evil, and the consequences of our actions, like no other writer. As the author saw clearly, anyone who imagines that God’s love and mercy somehow exclude his justice needs to think again.
This is why Lent is so important. It’s the season in Church life that calls us to discipline our appetites, put aside our excuses, and take an honest look at the state of our souls.
St. John XXIII, the “Good Pope John” who convened the Second Vatican Council, liked to describe the Church as our mother and teacher. So she always has been — even in those many times when her leaders and people have failed her (Dante has a generous population of clergy and religious, including popes and bishops, in his Inferno).
In that role as a mother, the Church gives us a blueprint for accomplishing God’s work of renewal in our hearts and in society at large. Catholic teaching argues beautifully for the sanctity of unborn human life; the dignity of the human person; the urgency of economic and social justice; and the meaning of true peace and human development. And as a mother, the Church offers us an examination of conscience that we can apply during Lent to just about every aspect of our lives:
Do we reverence and defend the dignity of the human person from conception to natural death?
Do we really love our enemies? Do we even try?
Do we teach our children to have gratitude; to take responsibility for their time, choices and actions; to feel the suffering of others; and to understand their role in building up the common good? Do we encourage that by our own good example?
Do we preach, by our actions, the dignity of human labor and the importance of human free will, work and creativity? Do we live our lives with a clear moral purpose — the purpose of co-creating with God a world shaped by the Gospel?
Do we promote the nobility of marriage and the integrity of the family?
Do we practice justice and mercy in our own social and economic relationships? Do we try to root out the prejudices in our own hearts? And do we encourage justice in our friends, business associates and leaders?
Do we take an active hand in the public square? Do we demand that our leaders promote the sanctity of the human person? And do we do everything in our power to correct or replace them if they don’t?
Finally, do we cultivate in ourselves and in our children an appetite for simplicity, humility and solidarity with others? The word “Catholic” means universal. We live most of our lives in our families and parishes, and that’s where our first priorities should always lie. But there’s no such thing as a merely “parochial” Catholic. Baptism makes all of us members of the global Christian community. That’s why issues like hunger, poverty, economic development, human trafficking, the rights of migrant workers, religious persecution — even when they’re happening on the other side of the world — are happening to our brothers and sisters in the Lord. And so they involve us.
We’re in the world as agents of God’s love and joy. We need to live in a way that honors each other, and honors the mission of the Church — because in us and through our actions, both individually and as a community of faith, the outside world will judge the Gospel we claim to believe.
May God grant all of us a holy and fruitful season of turning our lives back to the Lord.
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