Pope Francis’ 2013 Lenten letter to the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires.
To the priests, consecrated men and women, and the laity of the Archdiocese.
Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in mercy.
Little by little we have become accustomed to hearing and seeing—through the media of communication—the often unhappy and even depressing news stories about contemporary society. These are presented at times with an almost perverse joy, and we have grown accustomed to touching it and feeling it both around us and in our very flesh. This drama unfolds on the streets, in our neighborhoods, in our homes, so why not in our hearts as well? We coexist with a violence that kills, destroys families, and stirs up wars and conflicts in so many countries in our world. We live with envy, hatred, calumny, and a certain mundane-ness in our hearts. The suffering of the innocent and the peaceful never lets up; a blatant disrespect of the rights of both individual persons and groups of the most fragile is not distant; the money-making empire with its demonic effects like drugs, corruption, the ill treatment of people—including children—joined with material and moral misery have become today’s currency. The destruction of dignified work, painful emigrations and the absence of a clear future have also united themselves to this symphony. Our errors and sins as Church are also not outside this great panorama. The most selfish personal reasons—not in any way the smallest of offenses—, the lack of ethical values in society that has spread to families, to those living together in neighborhoods, towns and cities, these all speak to us of our limitations, of our weaknesses, and of our incapacity of transforming this innumerable list of destructive realities.
The trap of powerlessness leads us to think: Does it make any sense to try to change all this? Can we do anything as we face this situation? Is it worth trying to change if the world continues its carnival-like dance, masking everything for a while? Nevertheless, when the mask falls, truth appears and, although it may sound anachronistic to many, what re-appears is sin, a sin that wounds our flesh with all its destructive force twisting the destinies of the world and of history.
Lent presents itself to us like a shout of truth and sure hope; it is in our best interest to respond “yes,” to say that it is possible to not disguise ourselves and draw plastic smiles on our faces as if everything was good. Yes, it is possible for things to be different and be made new because God continues being “rich in goodness and mercy, always ready to forgive” and he urges us to begin again and again. Today we are once again invited to undertake a paschal way to Life; a way that includes the cross and renunciation which may be uncomfortable but is not sterile. We are invited to recognize that something is not quite right in the way we are living, in society, or in the Church; we are invited to change, to turn around, to be converted.
On this day, the words of the prophet Joel are both strong and challenging. Rend your hearts, not your clothing: be converted to the Lord your God. These words are an invitation to the whole people of God, no one is excluded.
Rend your hearts and not the clothing of an artificial penance that has no guarantee for the future.
Rend your hearts and not your clothing of a formal fasting and a sense of fulfillment that will keep us satisfied.
Rend your hearts and not your clothing of superficial and selfish prayer that doesn’t reach the core of our life so that God can touch us.
Rend your hearts and not your clothing so as to say with the psalmist: “we have sinned.” “The wound of the soul is sin: Oh, poor wounded one, recognize your Doctor! Show him the wounds of your faults. And, since from Him our most secret thoughts cannot hide themselves, make the cry of your heart felt [to Him]. Move him to compassion with your tears, with your insistence beg him! Let Him hear your sighs, that your pain reaches Him so that, at the end, He can tell you: The Lord has forgiven your sins”(Saint Gregory the Great). This is the reality of our human condition. This is the truth that allows us to draw closer to authentic reconciliation…with God and with one another. It’s not about discrediting our self-esteem but about penetrating the depths of our heart and being responsible for the mystery of suffering and pain that has bound us for centuries, for thousands of years… forever.
Rend your hearts so that through this crack we can truly see ourselves.
Rend your hearts, open your hears, because only in a heart that has been torn and opened can the merciful love of the Father, who calls us and heals us, enter.
Rend your hearts says the prophet, and Paul almost begs us “allow yourselves to be reconciled to God.” Changing our way of living is a sign and a fruit of this torn heart has been reconciled by a love that far surpasses what we know.
This is the invitation when we are faced with so many wounds that damage us and lead us to the temptation of hardening ourselves: Rend your hearts so as to experience in quiet and serene prayer the gentleness of God’s tenderness.
Rend your hearts so as to feel the echo of so many torn lives and so that indifference will not leave us sluggish.
Rend your hearts so as to be able to love with the love with which we are loved, to console as we have been consoled, and to share what we have received.
This liturgical time that the Church begins today [Ash Wednesday 2013] is not only for us as individuals but also for the transformation of our families, of our community, of our Church, of our country, of our entire world. These are forty days so that we may be converted to become more like God’s very holiness; that we might become collaborators who receive the grace and the possibility of reconstructing human life so that all people can experience the salvation Christ won for us with his death and resurrection.
Along with prayer and penance, as a sign of our faith in the Paschal mystery which transformed everything, we also dispose ourselves to begin as in years past our “Lenten gesture of solidarity.” As a Church in Buenos Aires that marches along to Easter and that believes that the Kingdom of God is possible we need that, from our hearts—torn by the desire for conversion and love—may blossom grace and effective gestures that will relieve the pain of so many brothers and sisters who walk with us. “No virtuous act is great if from it does not flow some benefit for others…Therefore, regardless of how much of your day is spent fasting, regardless of how hard the floor is you are choosing to sleep upon, how much ash you eat, and how much you sigh, if you are not doing good to others, you have done nothing great” (Saint John Chrysostom).
This Year of Faith is an opportunity given to us by God to grow and mature in our encounter with the Lord who is made visible in the suffering faces of so many children without a future, in the trembling hands of the forgotten elderly, and in the unsteady knees of so many families who keep giving their all without finding any support.
I wish you a holy Lent, and penitential and fruitful Lent and, please, I ask you to pray for me. May God bless you and may the Blessed Virgin take care of you.
Buenos Aires, February 13, 2013, Ash Wednesday
V Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, sj Translated by Sr. Marlyn Evangelista Monge, fsp