Yesterday, Ash Wednesday, the Holy Father presided at the traditional penitential procession from the church of St. Anselm on the Aventine Hill to the Basilica of St. Sabina, located on the same Roman hill. A number of cardinals, archbishops and bishops also took part, along with the Benedictine monks of St. Anselm, the Dominican fathers of Santa Sabina, and the faithful.
After the procession, Pope Francis presided at the Eucharistic celebration with the rite of the blessing and imposition of the ashes. The Pope received them from the hands of Cardinal Josef Tomko, the titular of the Basilica, and subsequently imposed them upon the cardinals and several monks, consecrated persons and faithful.
In his homily, the Pope commented on the Gospel readings of the Mass, beginning with the passage from the Prophet Joel, sent by God to call the population to penance and conversion following the plague of locusts that devastated Judah. “Only the Lord can save from the scourge, and it is therefore necessary to plead through prayer and fasting, confessing one’s own sin”. The prophet insists on inner conversion, begging the population to return to God with all their hearts, which means “undertaking a path of conversion that is not superficial or transitory, but rather a spiritual itinerary that involves the most intimate part of our person. The heart, indeed, is the seat of our sentiments, the centre where our decisions and attitudes mature”.
Joel’s call is not directed solely at individuals: it is extended to the entire community, and is a convocation to all, paying special attention to the prayer of priests, and reiterating that this must be accompanied by tears. “It does good to all, but especially to priests, at the beginning of this Lenten time, to ask for the gift of ears, so as to make our prayer and our path of conversion ever more authentic and free of hypocrisy”, continued the Pope. “It is good for us to ask: ‘Do I weep? Does the Pope weep? Do the cardinals weep? Do the bishops weep? Do priests weep? Do we weep in our prayers?”.
This is the message, he emphasized, of today’s Gospel reading, in which Jesus rereads the three works of mercy prescribed by the Mosaic Law – almsgiving, prayer and fasting – “which over time have been attacked by the rust of external formalism, or have even mutated into signs of social superiority”. He continued, “Jesus highlights a common temptation in these three works, that can be summarized in hypocrisy (mentioned three times): ‘Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them … Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do … And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites … For they love to stand and pray … that they may be seen by others’. Be aware, brothers, that hypocrites do not know how to weep, they have forgotten how, they do not ask for the gift of tears”.
“When we do something good, almost instinctively there arises in us the desire to be esteemed and admired for this good action, to receive satisfaction from it. Jesus invites us to carry out these works without any ostentation, and to trust solely in the Father’s reward”.
“The Lord never ceases to have mercy on us, or to offer his forgiveness once again, whenever we are in need of it, inviting us to turn to him with a renewed heart, purified of evil, purified by tears, in order to participate in His joy. How can we accept this invitation? St. Paul suggests to us: ‘We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God’. This effort of conversion is not simply a human task: it is allowing oneself to be reconciled. The reconciliation between us and God is possible thanks to the mercy of the Father Who, out of love for us, did not hesitate to sacrifice His only Son. … In Him, we can become righteous, in Him we can change, if we welcome God’s grace and do not allow the ‘favorable time’ to pass by in vain. Please, let us stop for a moment and let ourselves be reconciled with God”, exclaimed the Holy Father.
As a sign of our will to be reconciled with God, “aside from the tears that are shed in secret, we make the public gesture of the imposition of the ashes on the forehead. The celebrant pronounces these words: ‘For you are dust, and to dust you shall return’, or repeats Jesus’ exhortation: ‘Repent and believe in the Gospel’. Both formulas constitute a reminder of the truth of human existence: we are limited creatures, sinners always in need of penance and conversion. How important it is to hear and heed this call in our time! The invitation to convert thus inspires us to return, like the son in the parable, into the arms of God, tender and merciful Father, to weep in that embrace, to trust in Him and entrust ourselves to Him”.