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Lent with Francis

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People debate whether Holy Thursday foot washing isn't a kind of eighth sacrament. Pope Francis is saying, in effect, that allowing Christ to wash your feet is a picture of all the sacraments.


Every year at Lent, the pope publishes a Lenten message, to guide the Church in its task of conversion during that important penitential season. These messages are written months in advance. From the Vatican website it looks like the first Lenten Message -- which was published with the date of its original composition, by John Paul II in 1992 -- was composed nine months earlier, in June 1991! Apparently, popes have such solicitude for the spiritual good of the Church, that they begin thinking about the next Lent, as soon as ordinary time after Easter begins. This year's message from Pope Francis was composed fittingly on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi on Oct. 4 last year.

The media is reporting that the message is about the "globalization of indifference," which can make it seem that it is about so-called "structures of sin" and social justice and all that. Well, it is in a sense, yet in a prophetic way. Clearly the pope believes that billions of our brothers and sisters languishing in poverty, and largely forgotten by the slick world of, say, Katy Perry extravaganzas, luxury houses on Miami Beach, and so on and so on -- you know, that unreal world of glamor and distraction stretching across the globe, which would pretend that there is no suffering, decline, and death -- are a sign that something is drastically wrong with us. "We need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience," he says. But Pope Francis does not say that he knows what the answer is, or even what it will look like. Clearly, what we are doing now clearly is not working. Yet, "when the people of God are converted to his love, they find answers to the questions that history continually raises."

The message is addressed primarily to the comfortable, to those who are "doing well," and it begins with a reminder of what used to be called "Divine Condescension." This is the idea that, in the Incarnation, a living person who was absolutely and completely blessed nonetheless "emptied himself" and shared in the misery of our human lives. Of course, the Holy Father must remind us of the nature of God's love for us if he is going to ask us to imitate God in that way.

(Granted, when the Incarnation is explained in such a way, it can sound like a fairy tale. Did God really give up blessedness in assuming human nature? Does he cling to blessedness, the way we might? But as C.S. Lewis once wisely pointed out, in talking about our relationship to God, such child-like language has the most truth, because of who we are in relation to God, and who children are. If we try to sound more scientific by switching to abstract words with Greek or Latin roots, we do not actually succeed in saying anything more truthful.)

Pope Francis in his message is clearly against activism, "the diabolical temptation of thinking that by our own efforts we can save the world and ourselves." He is not saying that Christians should steel their will to love the poor in the way that justice requires. It is a mark of claims of justice that they have the character of necessity: "You have to do this." Along these same lines a noted secular ethicist has urged that people "must" give away anything they have beyond the bare minimum for daily life, just as, they would agree, they "must" stop whatever they were doing and save a child that they saw drowning in a swimming pool. Pope Francis's idea is rather to let us be moved to love, especially through the sacraments, because God has loved us first.

He uses as an image the foot washing which we see on Holy Thursday. We should permit God to serve us first: indeed, that is why we "go to church" at all. People debate whether Holy Thursday foot washing isn't a kind of eighth sacrament. Pope Francis is saying, in effect, that allowing Christ to wash your feet is a picture of all the sacraments.

The Holy Father is exceedingly gentle in how he interprets the satisfaction that Christians take in their own bubbles of comfort. Many Biblical images, after all, would suggest an alternative tone. He might have said that such Christians have become distracted by earthly cares, the way new growth is choked out by brambles and weeds. He could have said that we seem to cling to Mammon and despise God. He might have likened us to the "rich man" who finds it harder to enter the Kingdom of God than a camel can pass through a needle. But instead the pope recognizes that it only human to become complacent: "Usually, when we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others." He adds, too, that it's not as if the world generally welcomes the initiatives of Christians to help: "the world tends to withdraw into itself and shut that door through which God comes into the world." It is understandable if some Christians after encountering rejection want to give up in despair.

In sum, the Holy Father says, every Christian should strive this Lent to acquire a well-formed heart: a strong heart, "closed to the tempter but open to God," and a poor heart, "which realizes its own poverty and gives itself freely for others."


Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His book on the gospel of Mark, ‘‘The Memoirs of St. Peter,’’ is available from Regnery Gateway.

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