Today, with the austere ceremony of the distribution of ashes, the
penitential journey of Lent begins. This year is particularly marked
by the call to divine mercy: in fact we are in the Year of the
Father, which prepares us directly for the Great Jubilee of the Year
“Father, I have sinned ... before you” (Lk 15:18). In the season of
Lent these words inspire strong feeling, since this is a time when
the ecclesial community is invited to profound conversion. If it is
true that sin closes man to God, on the other hand, a sincere
confession of sins reawakens his conscience to the regenerating
action of God's grace. In effect, man is not restored to friendship
with God until the words “Father, I have sinned” flow from his lips
and his heart. His efforts are then made effective by the encounter
with salvation which takes place through Christ's Death and
Resurrection. It is in the paschal mystery, the heart of the Church,
that the penitent receives the gift of the forgiveness of his sins
and the joy of being born again to eternal life.
2. In the light of this extraordinary spiritual reality, the parable
of the prodigal son, in which Jesus wanted to tell us of the
heavenly Father's tender mercy, becomes powerfully eloquent. There
are three key stages in the story of this young man with whom, in a
certain sense, each of us can identify when we yield to temptation
and fall into sin.
The first stage: the distancing. We distance ourselves from God,
like that son from his father, when we forget that the goods and
talents we possess were given to us by God as a task and we
thoughtlessly squander them. Sin is always a waste of our humanity,
a waste of very precious values such as the dignity of the person
and the inheritance of divine grace.
The second stage is the process of conversion. Man, who by sin
voluntarily left his Father's house, realizes what he lost and
gradually makes the decisive step of coming to himself: “I will
arise and go to my Father” (Lk 15:18). The certainty that God “is
good and loves me” is stronger than shame and discouragement: it
sheds new light on one’s sense of guilt and personal unworthiness.
Lastly, the third stage: the return. The one important thing for the
father is that his son has been found. The embrace between him and
the prodigal son becomes a celebration of forgiveness and joy. This
is a moving Gospel scene that reveals in full detail the attitude of
our Father in heaven, who is “rich in mercy” (cf. Eph 2:4).
3. How many people throughout the ages have recognized in this
parable the basic elements of their own story! The way that leads
back to the Father's house after the bitter experience of sin comes
through an examination of conscience, repentance and the firm
intention to be converted. It is an interior process which changes
the way one looks at reality; it makes a person realize his own
frailty and it spurs the believer to throw himself into God's arms.
When man, supported by grace, goes over these steps in his mind, he
feels an acute need to rediscover himself and his own dignity as a
son in the Father's embrace.
Therefore, this parable, so dear to the Church's tradition,
expresses in a simple and profound way the reality of conversion,
giving us the most concrete expression of the work of divine mercy
in the human world. God's merciful love “promotes and draws good
from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man ...
mercy constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message
of Christ and the constitutive power of his mission” (cf. Dives in
misericordia, n. 6).
4. At the start of Lent, it is important to prepare our spirit to
receive abundantly the gift of divine mercy. The Word of God warns
us to repent and believe in the Gospel, and the Church indicates
that prayer, penance, fasting and generous aid to our brethren are
the means to enter into the atmosphere of authentic interior and
community renewal. In this way we can experience the superabundant
love of the heavenly Father, given in fullness to all humanity in
the paschal mystery. We can say that Lent is the time of a
particular concern on God's part to pardon and forgive our sins: it
is the time of reconciliation. For this reason it is a most
appropriate time for the fruitful reception of the sacrament of
Dear brothers and sisters, knowing that our reconciliation with God
takes place through authentic conversion, let us begin our Lenten
pilgrimage with our eyes fixed on Christ, our only Redeemer.
Lent will help us return to ourselves and courageously renounce
whatever prevents us from faithfully following the Gospel.
Especially in these days let us contemplate the image of the Father
embracing the son who returned to his paternal home, which well
symbolizes the theme this year that leads us into the Great Jubilee
of the Year 2000.
The embrace of reconciliation between the Father and all sinful
humanity took place on Calvary. May the Crucifix, sign of the love
of Christ who sacrificed himself for our salvation, instil in the
hearts of every man and woman of our time that same trust which
prompted the prodigal son to say: “I will arise and go to my father,
and I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned'”. He received the
gift of forgiveness and joy.
* * * * *
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The beginning of the season of Lent invites us to turn to God our
Father with great trust in his mercy and love.
The parable of the Prodigal Son speaks to us of sin and conversion.
As in the case of the Prodigal Son, every sin creates a distance
between ourselves and the Father. But the Father, who is “rich in
mercy”, continually calls us to examine our conscience, to repent
and to be converted.
Lent is a time for us to seek the gift of the Father’s mercy through
authentic personal and community renewal. This renewal involves
prayer, fasting and charitable acts, and is most intensely
experienced in the Sacrament of Penance. As we look forward to
Easter, may our Lenten journey help us to put aside whatever hinders
our friendship with God.
I am happy to welcome all the English-speaking visitors and
pilgrims, especially those from England, Ireland, Japan and the
United States of America. Upon you and your families, I invoke the
strength and joy of our Lord Jesus Christ.
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