Pope Francis has given me a fresh approach to celebrating the Holy season of Lent, which I hope you will find helpful.
“Mercy,” he said, “is the face of God”; Jesus gave a human face to divine mercy. We, who have been made in the image and likeness of God and, through baptism, share His very life as his sons and daughters, must radiate God’s mercy in our daily lives.
First, we must begin with ourselves and our need for God’s mercy, before we think of other people’s guilt and their need for forgiveness. On Ash Wednesday we expressed sorrow for our sins by receiving ashes -a very ancient way of expressing guilt and repentance. As our foreheads were marked with an ash cross we were given hope of forgiveness, with the words, ‘repent and believe in the Gospel’ -the good news of the power of God’s loving Mercy. We should follow this up by seeking God’s mercy -by going to confession.
Surprisingly, this should be a joyful experience. Of course, none of us likes admitting we’ve done wrong. It’s hard to be honest with ourselves, much more difficult with someone else. We feel ashamed and embarrassed, perhaps afraid the priest will be very fierce with us.
Let me try to reassure you. Always remember in this sacrament we priests are ministers of Christ’s peace-making. Our job is to help you find peace with God, peace within yourself. We are there to forgive, not condemn, to heal, not to inflict wounds. If you’re nervous in coming to confession, you should leave with joy in your heart joy that God, in His loving mercy, has removed the burden of your guilt. Never should we priest scare people from coming to confession!
It’s worth remembering that we priests need to confess our sins. We have the same sense of embarrassment and shame as anyone else, the same sense of relief when we’ve been forgiven. My approach to hearing confession is to try to show the penitent the same understanding and compassion as I hope and need to receive from God and those I have harmed.
Jesus repeatedly insisted that if we want to receive God’s mercy we must forgive those who have harmed us. We must be as merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful. We must radiate God’s ‘face of mercy.’ There’s great scope for us to be peacemakers in our daily lives. We hurt each other and we get hurt, sometimes accidentally, sometimes deliberately. Instinctively we argue, “It was his or her fault; they must make the first move.”
But that’s not God’s way, nor can it be ours. Though completely innocent, He took the initiative at repairing our relationship with Him, damaged by sin. As images of God, reflecting His mercy, we must make the first move, whoever was at fault. That’s the quickest, the only way to restoring the peace for which we all long.
That certainly was the approach of the crucified Christ. As St. Paul tells us, “For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through the blood of His Cross," (Col. 2. 20-21). In the crucified Jesus God has fashioned an indestructible bond between Himself and the human race. There, on the cross He has shown how much He loves each one of us –“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” (Jn. 15. 13). But Jesus’ love went much, much, much further -He prayed for the very people responsible for His brutal, unjust execution, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing," (Lk. 23. 34 ).
In the crucified Jesus we see the human face of God’s loving, healing mercy. That’s what we are preparing to celebrate during Lent. This will reach its triumphant climax in Holy Week.
During this sacred season let us focus on Mercy being the Face of God. First, we must seek the healing balm of His forgiveness. As God’s children let us focus on reflecting the face of His mercy. In other words, let’s take the initiative in healing the wounds we have inflicted, the wounds we have suffered. That means having the courage to say, “sorry,” the generosity to forgive.
Especially during this Lent let’s determine to be peace seekers and peace makers. Let’s make Lent a special time for bridge building, for repairing the damage caused by demolition experts, including ourselves!