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Lent 1979

Pope St John Paul II's Message    
- in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"What has become of Lent?"

You ask: “What has become of Lent?” You think that the relatively small renunciation of food does not mean much when so many of our brothers and sisters, victims of wars and catastrophes, suffer so much, physically and morally.

Fasting concerns personal asceticism, which is always necessary, but the Church asks the baptized to characterize this liturgical time also in another way. Indeed, Lent has for us a precise meaning: it must manifest to the eyes of the world that the entire People of God, as sinners, is preparing itself in Penance to re-live liturgically the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. This public and collective witness has its own source in the spirit of Penance of each one of us and it also leads us to deepen interiorly this behaviour and better motivate it.

To renounce does not mean only to give that which is superfluous, but sometimes also that which is necessary, like the widow in the Gospel who knew that her very mite was already a gift received from God. To renounce means to free oneself from the slavery of a civilization that pushes us more and more to comfort and consumption, without any concern even for the preservation of our environment, the common heritage of humanity.

Your ecclesial communities invite you to take part in “Lenten Campaigns”; they also help you to orientate the exercise of your spirit of Penance, sharing what you possess with so many who have less or nothing at all.

Are you perhaps still remaining idle because no one has invited you to work? At the construction site of charity there is a shortage of workers; the Church calls you. Do not wait until it is too late to assist Christ who is in prison or without clothes, Christ who is persecuted or a refugee, Christ who is hungry or without a home. Help our brothers and sisters who lack the minimum necessary to escape from inhuman conditions and to enter into authentic human advancement.

To all of you who are determined to give this evangelical witness of penance and solidarity, my blessing in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.


Papa Saint John Paul II's Homily at Holy Mass on Ash Wednesday
Basilica of St Sabina in Rome, 28 February 1979 - in English, French, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"1. “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting… Return to the Lord, your God! (Joel 2, 12, 13).

Today we announce Lent with the words of the prophet Joel, and we begin it with the whole Church. We announce Lent of the Year of the Lord 1979 with the rite that is even more eloquent than the words of the prophet. Today the Church blesses the ashes, obtained from the branches blessed on Palm Sunday last year, to sprinkle them on each of us. So let us bow our heads and in the sign of the ashes recognize the whole truth of the words addressed by God to the first man: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3, 19).

Yes! We can remember this reality particularly during the time of Lent, to which the liturgy of the Church brings us today. It is a stern time. In this period, divine truths must speak to our hearts with particular forcefulness. We must meet our human experience, our conscience. The first truth, proclaimed today, reminds man of his transience, recalls death, which is for each of us the end of earthly life. Today the Church lays great stress on this truth, confirmed by the history of every man. Remember that “to dust you shall return”. Remember that your life on earth has a limit!

2. But the message of Ash Wednesday does not end here. The whole of today’s liturgy warns: Remember that limit; and at the same time: do not stop at that limit! Death is not only a “natural” necessity. Death is a mystery. Here we enter the particular time in which the whole Church, more than ever, wishes to meditate on death as the mystery of man in Christ. Christ the Son of God accepted death as a natural necessity, as an inevitable part of man’s fate on earth. Jesus Christ accepted death as the consequence of sin. Right from the beginning death was united with sin: the death of the body (“to dust you shall return”) and the death of the human spirit owing to disobedience to God, to the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ accepted death as a sign of obedience to God, in order to restore to the human spirit the full gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ accepted death to overcome sin. Jesus Christ accepted death to overcome death in the very essence of its perennial mystery.

3. Therefore the message of Ash Wednesday is expressed with the words of St Paul: “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5, 20-21). Collaborate with him!

The significance of Ash Wednesday is not limited to remind us of death and sin; it is also a loud call to overcome sin, to be converted. Both of these express collaboration with Christ. During Lent we have before our eyes the whole divine “economy” of grace and salvation”. In this time of Lent let us remember “not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor 6, 1).

Jesus Christ himself is the most sublime grace of Lent. It is he himself who presents himself before us in the admirable simplicity of the Gospel, of its words and its works. He speaks to us with the might of his Gethsemane, of the judgment before Pilate, of the scourging, of the crowning with thorns, of the via crucis, of his crucifixion: with everything that can shake the heart of man.

In this Lenten period the whole Church wishes to be specially united with Christ, in order that his preaching and his service may be even more fruitful. “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6, 2).

4. Filled with the depth of today’s liturgy, I, John Paul II, Bishop of Rome, with all my Brothers and Sisters in the one faith of your Church, with all my Brothers and Sisters of the immense human family, say to you, Christ: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Ps 51).

“Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people” (Joel 2, 18). Amen."

Catechesis by Pope St John Paul II on Ash Wednesday
General Audience, Wednesday 28 February 1979 - in English, French, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"1. We meet today on the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday. On this day, beginning the forty-day period of the preparation for Easter, the Church puts ashes on our heads and calls us to penitence. The word "penitence" recurs in so many pages of Holy Scripture, it re-echoes on the lips of so many prophets and, finally, in a particularly eloquent way, on the lips of Jesus Christ himself: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt 3:2). It can be said that Christ introduced the tradition of fasting or forty days into the liturgical year of the Church. because he himself "fasted forty days and forty nights" (Mt 4:2) before beginning to teach. With this forty-day fast, the Church is, in a certain sense, called every year to follow her Master and Lord, if she wishes to preach his Gospel effectively. The first clay of Lent
— just today — must testify in a particular way that the Church accepts this call by Christ and wishes to fulfil it.

2. Penitence in the evangelical sense means, above all, "conversion". From this aspect, the passage of the Gospel of Ash Wednesday is very significant. Jesus speaks of the carrying out of acts of penitence, known to and practised by his contemporaries, by the people of the Old Covenant. At the same time, however, he criticizes the purely "external" way in which these acts, charity, fasting, prayer, are carried out: because this way is contrary to the peculiar finality of the acts themselves. The purpose of the acts of penitence is a sincere turning to God to be able to meet him deep down in the human being, in the recesses of the heart.

"Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do... that they may be praised by men...; do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites... that they may be seen by men... But... go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret, will reward you.

"And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites,... but anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Mt 6:2-6, 17-18).

Therefore the first and principal meaning of penitence is interior, spiritual. The principal effort of penitence consists "in entering oneself", one's deepest being, entering this dimension of one's own humanity in which, in a certain sense, God is waiting for us. The "exterior" man must — I would say — yield, in each of us, to the "interior" man and, in a certain sense, "make way for him". In current life, man does not live enough on the "interior" plane. Jesus Christ clearly indicates that also acts of devotion and penitence (such as fasting, charity, prayer) which because of their religious finality are mainly "interior", may yield to the current "exteriorism", and can therefore be falsified. Penitence, on the contrary, as turning to God, requires above all that man should reject appearances, succeed in freeing himself from falsity, and find himself again in all his interior truth. Even a rapid, summary look into the divine splendour of man's interior truth is already a success. It is necessary, however, to consolidate this success skilfully by means of systematic work on oneself. This work is called "ascesis" (it had already been given this name by the Greeks of the times of the origins of Christianity). Ascesis means an interior effort not to let oneself be swept along and pushed by the different "exterior" currents, in such a way as to remain always oneself and keep the dignity of one's own humanity.

But the Lord Jesus calls us to do something more. When he says "go into your room and shut the door", he indicates an ascetic effort of the human spirit, which must not end in man himself. That shutting-in of oneself is, at the same time, the deepest opening of the human heart. It is indispensable for the purpose of meeting the Father, and must be undertaken for this purpose. "Your Father who sees in secret will reward you." Here it is a question of acquiring again the simplicity of thought, of will, and of heart which is indispensable to meet God in one's own "self". And God is waiting for that, in order to approach man who is absorbed interiorly and at the same time open to his word and his love! God wishes to communicate himself to the soul thus disposed. He wishes to give it truth and love, which have their real source in him.

3. Then the main current of Lent must flow through the interior man, through hearts and consciences. The essential effort of repentance consists in this. In this effort the human determination to be converted to God is invested with the predisposing grace of conversion and, at the same time, of forgiveness and of spiritual liberation. Penance is not just an effort, a weight, but it is also a joy. Sometimes it is a great joy of the human spirit, a delight that other sources cannot bring forth.

Contemporary man seems to have lost, to a certain extent, the flavour of this joy. He has also lost the deep sense of that spiritual effort, which makes it possible to find oneself again in the whole truth of one's interior being. Many causes and circumstances, which it is difficult to analyse in the limits of this discourse, contribute in this connection. Our civilization — especially in the West — closely connected with the development of science and technique, catches a glimpse of the need of intellectual and physical effort. But it has lost to a considerable extent the sense of the effort of the spirit, the fruit of which is man seen in his interior dimensions. When all is said and done, man living in the currents of this civilization very often loses his own dimension; he loses the interior sense of his own humanity. The effort that leads to the fruit just mentioned becomes alien to this man, as well as the joy that comes from it: the great joy of finding again and of meeting; the joy of Conversion (met á noia); the joy of Penitence.

The severe liturgy of Ash Wednesday and, subsequently, the whole period of Lent is
— as preparation for Easter — a systematic call to this joy: to the joy that fructifies from the effort of patiently finding oneself again: "By your endurance you will gain your lives" (Lk 21:19).

Let no one be afraid to undertake this effort."

To representatives of the “ Shinto ” religion

"I should like to express to the Venerable High Priest Nijo, High Priest of the Shrine of Ise, and to the thirty Shinto representatives here present, my joy and gratitude for having come to honour my humble person in the name of the whole Shintoist community.

On such an auspicious occasion I wish to express my respect for the religion that you profess. The Catholic Church recognizes with reverence everything that is true, good and noble in your religion. 

Shintoism, the traditional religion of Japan, affirms for example that all men are equally sons of God and that, because of this, all men are brothers. Moreover, in your religious tradition, you show a special sensitivity and appreciation for the harmony and beauty of nature, and you show a readiness to recognize there a revelation of God the Most High. I am also aware that in your noble teaching on personal asceticism you seek to make the heart of man ever more pure.

The many things that we hold in common impel us to unite ever more closely in friendship and brotherhood in the service of all humanity.

Gladly, therefore, I invoke upon each of you, upon your families, and upon the entire Japanese people a special blessing from the Most High."

Ai pellegrinaggi delle diocesi di Capua ed Eboli

"Sono lieto di rivolgere un affettuoso benvenuto al numeroso pellegrinaggio dell’arcidiocesi di Capua, guidato dall’Arcivescovo, Monsignor Luigi Diligenza, come pure ai sacerdoti e ai fedeli di Eboli, anch’essi accompagnati dal loro Pastore, Monsignor Gaetano Pollio. In ambedue i gruppi sono presenti dei malati, privilegiati testimoni della Croce benedetta e redentrice di Cristo. Voi siete convenuti qui, desiderosi d’incontrarvi cuore a cuore con il Papa, per vivere un momento d’intimità familiare e trarne motivi di letizia e di conforto. Tuttavia, anche in questa occasione, l’aspirazione più intima è quella di entrare in comunione con Gesù Signore, speranza e gaudio delle nostre anime, vita della nostra vita.

Prego il Padre celeste perché quest’ora sia un momento di grazia per tutti, una lieta esperienza di fede in Gesù Salvatore e Liberatore, specialmente per coloro che, sofferenti nel corpo e nello spirito, sono a lui più vicini in un misterioso disegno di salvezza a favore dell’umanità intera. Con l’augurio che nella vita di ogni giorno vi assista sempre la certezza dell’amore paterno del Signore, benedico di cuore voi e le vostre famiglie."

Agli ammalati

"Estendo poi il mio saluto e la mia particolare Benedizione a tutti gli altri ammalati, e tanto più affettuoso, quanto più profonda è la ferita del dolore. Carissimi, come le sofferenze di Cristo, così anche le vostre, se accettate e offerte con fede, possono contribuire al vostro bene morale e alla redenzione del mondo. Per comprender questo ci vuole un occhio puro e un cuore che ama, come invoco dal Signore per ciascuno di voi, mentre lo prego altresì di consolarvi."

Ai giovani e agli anziani ospiti dell’Istituto Romano San Michele

"Desidero ancora rivolgere un saluto affettuoso ai dirigenti ed ospiti dell’Istituto Romano San Michele. Carissimi fratelli, siate sempre fieri delle tradizioni cristiane che hanno distinto la vostra istituzione: voi giovani, irradiate l’ideale evangelico nelle vostre scuole e nei vostri centri di addestramento professionale, e un domani in tutti i luoghi dove verrete a trovarvi e a svolgere la vostra attività. Voi anziani, siate perseveranti nella fede e lieti nella speranza, ben consapevoli che la Provvidenza non vi abbandonerà mai, e tanto meno in codesti preziosi anni della vostra esistenza. La mia speciale Benedizione vi sia di conforto e di incoraggiamento in ogni vostro buon proposito all’inizio del tempo quaresimale."

Ai giovani sposi

"Non dimentico voi, sposi novelli, che avete la primavera nel cuore, santificati dalla grazia e dal sacramento. Vi auguro ogni bene e felicità. Col matrimonio voi avete fondato un nido e acceso una fiamma. Fate che il nido sia sempre tiepido d’amore e che la fiamma sia alimentata dalla fede e da una coerente vita cristiana. Vi accompagni la mia benedizione."