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Lent 2003

Pope Saint John Paul II's Message
(Acts 20:35) - in English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese & Spanish

"There is more happiness in giving than in receiving"

Dearest Brothers and Sisters!
1. Lent is a season of intense prayer, fasting and concern for those in need. It offers every Christian the possibility of preparing for Easter with a serious discernment about their own life, in a special way comparing it with the Word of God which illuminates the daily journey of believers.

This year, as a guide for our lenten reflection, I would like to propose a phrase taken from the Acts of the Apostles: "There is more happiness in giving than in receiving" (Acts 20:35). What we have here is not simply a moral exhortation, or a command which comes to us from without. The inclination to give is rooted in the depths of the human heart: every person has a desire to interact with others and fully realizes this when he gives himself freely to others.

2. Our age, unfortunately, is influenced by a mentality particularly susceptible to the suggestions of selfishness, always ready to reveal themselves in the human heart. In social life, as in the media, the person is solicited by messages in an insistent manner which, openly or surreptitiously, exalt an ephemeral and hedonistic culture. While attention for others is not lacking when natural disasters, war and other emergencies strike, in general it is difficult to develop a culture of solidarity. The spirit of the world affects our inner propensity to give ourselves unselfishly to others and drives us to satisfy our own particular interests. The desire to accumulate goods is ever more encouraged. Without doubt, it is natural and right that each person, by using his own gifts and by his own labour, should work to obtain what he needs to live, but an excessive desire for possessions prevents the human creature from being open to the Creator and to those like him. The words of Paul to Timothy are valid in every age: "The love of money is the root of all evil and athere ar some who, pursuing it, have wandered away from the faith, and so given their souls any number of fatal wounds" (1 Tim 6:10).

The exploitation of man, the indifference towards the suffering of another, the violation of moral norms are just some of the fruits of the thirst for gain. Faced with the sad spectacle of persistent poverty which afflicts such a large part of our world population, how can we fail to see that the quest for profit at any cost and the lack of effective, responsible concern for the common good have concentrated immense resources in the hands of a few while the rest of humanity suffers in poverty and neglect?

Appealing to believers and to all men of good will, I would like to reaffirm a principle which is self-evident yet often ignored: our goal should not be the benefit of a privileged few, but rather the improvement of the living conditions of all. Only on this foundation can we build that international order truly marked by justice and solidarity which is the hope of everyone.

3. "There is more happiness in giving than in receiving." When believers respond to the inner impulse to give themselves to others without expecting anything in return, they experience a profound interior satisfaction.

The efforts of Christians to promote justice, their commitment in defence of the powerless, their humanitarian work in providing bread for the hungry and their care for the sick by responding to every emergency and need, draw their strength from that sole and inexhaustible treasury of love which is the complete gift of Jesus to the Father. Believers are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, who, in perfect obedience to the will of the Father, emptied himself (cf Phil 2:6), and humbly gave himself to us in selfless and total love, even unto death on a cross. Calvary eloquently proclaims the message of the Blessed Trinity’s love for men of all times and places.

St Augustine observes that only God, as the Supreme Good, is capable of overcoming the various forms of poverty present in our world. Mercy and love for one’s neighbour must therefore be the fruit of a living relationship with God and have God as their constant point of reference, since it is in closeness to Christ that we find our joy.

4. The Son of God loved us first, while "we were yet sinners" (Rom 5:6), with an unconditional love which asks nothing in return. If this is so, how can we fail to see the season of Lent as a providential opportunity to make courageous decisions inspired by altruism and generosity? Lent offers us the practical and effective weapons of fasting and almsgiving as a means of combating an excessive attachment to money. Giving not only from our abundance, but sacrificing something more in order to give to the needy, fosters that self-denial which is essential to authentic Christian living. Strengthened by constant prayer, the baptized reveal the priority which they have given to God in their lives.

The love of God poured into our hearts ought to inspire and transform who we are and what we do. Christians must not think that they can seek the true good of their brothers without embodying the charity of Christ. Even in those cases where they might succeed in improving important aspects of social or political life, without charity every change would remain short-lived. The possibility of giving oneself to others is itself a gift which comes from the grace of God. As St Paul teaches: "God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil 2:13).

5. To the man of today, often dissatisfied with an empty and ephemeral existence and in search of authentic happiness and love, Christ offers his own example, inviting him to follow. He asks those who hear his voice to give their lives for their brothers. From such a dedication springs a full realization of self and a joy, as is shown in the eloquent example of those men and women who, leaving all security behind, have not hesitated to risk their lives as missionaries in different parts of the world. It is given witness to by the decision of young people who, prompted by faith, have embraced a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life in order to serve God’s plan of salvation. It is illustrated in the growing number of volunteers who readily devote themselves to helping the poor, the elderly, the sick and all those in need.

Recently, we have witnessed a praiseworthy outpouring of solidarity for the victims of floods in Europe, earthquakes in Latin America and Italy, epidemics in Africa, volcanic eruptions in the Phillippines, as well as for other areas of the world scarred by hatred, violence and war.

In these situations, the communications media play a significant role by allowing us to identify with and offer ready help to the suffering and those in distress. At times it is not the Christian command of love, but rather an innate sense of compassion which motivates our efforts to assist others. Even so, anyone who helps those in need always enjoys God’s favour. In the Acts of the Apostles we read that the disciple Tabitha was saved because she had done good to her neighbour (cf 9:36). The centurion Cornelius obtained eternal life on account of his generosity (cf 10: 2-31).

For those who are 'far-off', service to the needy can be a providential path leading to an encounter with Christ, since the Lord abundantly repays the good deeds done to one’s neighbour (cf Mt 25:40).

It is my fervent hope that Lent may be for believers a favourable time for bearing witness to the Gospel of charity in every place, since the vocation to charity is the heart of all true evangelization. To this end I invoke the intercession of Mary, Mother of the Church and pray that she will accompany us on our lenten journey. With these sentiments I affectionately impart to all my blessing.

From the Vatican, 7 January 2003


Papa San Giovanni Paolo II's Catechesis on Ash Wednesday
General Audience, 5 March 2003 - in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

1. With the words of the Apostle Paul, on Ash Wednesday, the liturgy addresses to all the faithful a vigorous invitation to conversion: "We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (II Cor 5,20). Lent is the more favourable spiritual season to receive this exhortation because it is a season of more serious prayer, penance, and greater attention to the needs of our brothers.

With today's rite of the imposition of ashes, we recognize that we are sinners and, showing a sincere desire for conversion, ask God's pardon. Thus we begin an austere ascetical journey that will lead us to the Easter Triduum, the heart of the liturgical year.

2. In keeping with the ancient tradition of the Church, today all the faithful are bound to abstain from eating meat and all, with the sole exception of those who are justifiably prevented for reasons of health or age, must fast. Fasting has great value in the life of Christians. It is a spiritual need, in order to relate better to God. In fact, the external aspects of fasting, though important, do not convey the full measure of the practice. Joined to the practice should be a sincere desire for inner purification, readiness to obey the divine will and thoughtful solidarity with our brothers, particularly the very poor.

There is also a close link between fasting and prayer. Prayer means listening to God; fasting favours this openness of heart.

3. As we enter the lenten season, we need to be aware of today's international situation, troubled by the tensions and threats of war. It is necessary that everyone consciously assume responsibility and engage in a common effort to spare humanity another tragic conflict. This is why I wanted this Ash Wednesday to be a Day of Prayer and Fasting to implore peace for the world. We must ask God, first of all, for conversion of heart, for it is in the heart that every form of evil, every impulse to sin is rooted; we must pray and fast for the peaceful coexistence of peoples and nations.

At the beginning of our gathering, we heard the encouraging words of the prophet: "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they train for war again" (Is 2,4); and again: "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks". Above the upheavals of history there is the sovereign presence of God who judges human decisions. Let us open our hearts to him who will "judge between the nations", and "decide for many peoples" and implore him to grant a future of justice and peace for all. This thought should stimulate each one of us to persevere in unceasing prayer and in an effective dedication to build a world in which selfishness may give way to solidarity and love.

4. I also wanted to repropose the pressing invitation to conversion, penance and solidarity in the Message for Lent, whose theme is the beautiful sentence from the Acts of the Apostles: "There is more happiness in giving than in receiving".

A close look shows that it is only by being converted to this logic that it is possible to build a social order which is not based on a precarious balance of conflicting interests, but by a just and solidary pursuit of the common good. Christians, in the manner of leaven, are called to live and spread a style of generosity in every realm of life, thus promoting genuine moral and civil social progress. On this topic I wrote: "Giving not only from our abundance, but sacrificing something more in order to give to the needy, fosters that self-denial which is essential to authentic Christian living".

5. May this day of prayer and fasting for peace with which we begin Lent be translated into concrete acts of reconciliation. From the family circle to the international realm, may each person feel and be co-responsible for building peace. Then the God of peace who examines the intentions of hearts and calls his children to be peacemakers (cf Mt 5,9) will not fail to reward us (cf Mt 6, 4.6.18).

Let us entrust these wishes of ours to the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Queen of the Rosary and Mother of Peace. May she take us by the hand and accompany us during the next 40 days on our way to Easter, to contemplate the Risen Lord.

Papa San Juan Pablo II's Homily on Ash Wednesday
5 March 2003, Basilica of St Sabina, Rome - in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

1. "Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast; / call a solemn assembly; / gather the people, notify the congregation" (Jl 2,15-16).

These words of the prophet Joel, that we have just heard, emphasize the communal dimension of penance. Certainly, repentance can only come from the heart that, according to biblical anthropology, is the "seat" of the deepest human inclinations. However, penitential acts should be lived together with the members of our community.

Especially, at difficult moments, after a misfortune or when danger threatened, the Word of God on the lips of the prophets used to call believers to a penitential mobilization. All were called, no one was left out, from the elderly to infants; all were as one in imploring from God compassion and pardon (cf Jl 2,16-18).

2. The Christian community listens to this vigorous invitation to conversion as it gets ready to undertake the lenten journey that begins with the ancient rite of the imposition of ashes. This gesture, that some might consider outmoded, certainly clashes with the modern mentality, but this forces us to look for its deeper meaning, to explain its effective impact.

As the priest places the ashes on the heads of the faithful, he repeats the phrase: "Remember ... you are dust and unto dust you shall return". To return to dust is the fate that men and animals seem to have in common. However the human being is not just flesh, but also spirit. If the flesh is destined to become dust, the spirit is made for immortality. In addition, the believer knows that Christ is risen, conquering death in his body. In hope the believer moves toward this future reality.

3. Receiving the ashes on the head signifies, therefore, recognizing that we are creatures, made of earth and destined to return to it (cf Gn 3,19); it also means proclaiming that we are sinners, in need of God's pardon in order to be able to live according to the Gospel (cf Mk 1,15); finally, it means reviving our hope in the definitive encounter with Christ in the glory and peace of Heaven.

This prospect of joy commits believers to do everything possible to anticipate at the present time something of the future peace. This calls for the purification of heart and reinforcing of communion with God and with the brethren. This is the aim of the prayer and fasting to which, in the face of the threats of war looming on the horizon, I have invited the faithful. With prayer, we abandon ourselves totally into God's hands, and from him alone we await true peace. With fasting, we prepare our hearts to receive peace from the Lord, his greatest gift and the privileged sign of the coming of his Kingdom.

4. Prayer and fasting, however, must be accompanied by works of justice; conversion must be translated into welcome and solidarity. The ancient prophet warns: "Is not this the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of wickedness, / to undo the thongs of the yoke, / to let the oppressed go free, /and to break every yoke?" (Is 58,6).

There will be no peace on earth while the oppression of peoples, social injustices and existing economic imbalances continue. Yet for the great and hoped for structural changes, extrinsic initiatives and mediations are not enough; above all, we need the unanimous conversion of hearts to love.

5. "Return to me with all your heart" (Jl 2,12). We could say that the message of today's celebration is compressed into God's heartfelt exhortation to conversion of heart.

The Apostle Paul repeats the invitation in the second reading: "We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.... Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation!" (II Cor 5,20; 6,2).

Dear brothers and sisters, now is the favourable time to review our attitude toward God and toward our brothers!

This is the day of salvation on which to examine in depth the criteria that orient us in our daily behaviour.

Help us, Lord, to return with all our heart to you, the Way that leads to salvation, the Truth that sets us free, the Life that knows no death!"

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