Marriage Enrichment: Pope Francis helps Lenten resolutions stay on track

The Holy Father’s annual Lenten messages from 2013 onward keep one’s focus where it should be

By Marian Christiana

Lent is a very bad time to take a vacation. I have trouble with self-denial as it is, but take me out of my routine and I am lost. Add a little disappointment to the mix and it is all but over. I started out strong, messed up in the middle, and now I’m working toward a strong finish. It is how we finish that counts. Right? As it turns out, Pope Francis helped me figure out how to get back on track.

Originally I was going to give up eating between meals and eating desserts. I was doing pretty well with both of those, but then I went to visit my sister, Kass, in Dallas. The plan was to visit Kass for a few days and then our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter would come up from Austin to visit us. Unfortunately, when we arrived in Dallas my sister came down with the flu. We didn’t want our daughter’s family to get sick, so we canceled their visit to Dallas. We thought by their weekend visit my husband or I would be sick. Luckily that didn’t happen, but we didn’t want to take the chance. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. I was really looking forward to seeing our daughter and her family.

Who am I kidding?

I was very disappointed about not getting to spend time with our granddaughter! I don’t know about you but I eat when I’m feeling out of sorts, and so I ate to make myself feel better. Chocolate was the best cure, lots and lots of chocolate. There went my Lenten resolutions…or so I thought.

While my sister was recuperating, I started reading the annual messages for Lent from Pope Francis as a way to get my head back into my Lenten practices. Pope Francis has been sending out Lenten messages to us since he began his papacy in 2013. Before Lent begins, Pope Francis will send out a message highlighting a theme to consider during our Lenten experience.

I began by reading his message to his archdiocese in Argentina for Lent of 2013, right before he was elected to the See of Peter as Pope Francis. Pope Francis used this quote from St. John Chrysostom in his Lenten message: “No act of virtue can be large if it does not also benefit another….Therefore, no matter how you spend the day fasting, no matter how you may sleep on a hard floor, and how you may eat ashes and sigh continuously, if you do not do good to others, you do not accomplish anything great.”

This quote was the key that turned me around this Lent and helped me prepare more room in my heart for Jesus.

As I read one message after another I realized that although they each expressed a different theme they all contained an element of reaching out to others. The 2014 Lenten messages focused on poverty and challenged us to “confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it.” Poverty comes in all shapes and sizes. It doesn’t have to be the lack of material goods. A person’s loneliness can be a type of poverty.

The messages in 2015 asked us to consider giving up indifference to others, what Pope Francis called the globalization of indifference.

The pope wrote that “whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” As I sat there eating my chocolate candies I realized that I was definitely caught up in my own interests and concerns.

In 2016 Pope Francis highlighted God’s mercy and the need for us to be merciful to others. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13) was the inspiration for this Lenten message. The Holy Father divided his message into three sections:

  1. “Mary, the image of a Church which evangelizes because she is evangelized”;
  2. “God’s covenant with humanity: a history of mercy”;
  3. “The works of mercy.”

No. 3 caught my eye. My sister was widowed last year and will be retiring this June after 25 years of teaching reading recovery in the Plano, Texas, school system. She has a three-car garage that became so filled up it actually became a one-car garage over the years. It was filled with 30 years of memories. She and her late husband were always going to clean it out together but never got around to it. The clutter has been weighing her down as she tried to contemplate her future as a retiree. I secretly think these two huge life changes have affected her immune system this year.

Anyway, there I sat eating and feeling sorry for myself when I realized that I could make this situation a win/win for both of us. I love to organize and throw things out! It gives me a great sense of accomplishment to see things tidy and put into place. I asked my sister if I could clean out her garage for her. She could supervise when she felt better. She thought I was nuts, but said OK. I spent the next three days sorting, donating, and trashing the items in her garage. I truly felt that I had my Lenten experience back on track. I was getting out of my own head and reaching out to my sister in a way that I hadn’t thought of before reading the Lenten messages of Pope Francis.

You may be thinking that I forgot Pope Francis’ message for 2017, but I haven’t. The theme for this year is “The Word is a gift. Other persons are a gift.” I am now focusing on this message for the remainder of Lent to keep myself on track for the rest of the journey. The pope encourages us to encounter Christ through His living Word while we reach out to others.

In closing, let me share just part of Pope Francis’ 2017 Lenten message that is helping me stay focused: “Let us pray for one another so that, by sharing in the victory of Christ, we may open our doors to the weak and poor. Then we will be able to experience and share to the full the joy of Easter.”

Mrs. Christiana is coordinator of the diocesan Marriage Preparation and Enrichment Office.

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