March 14, 2013

Pope Francis: Lenten Letter as Archbishop of Buenos Aires

Pope Francis: Lenten Letter as Archbishop of Buenos Aires
Photo by Ashwin Vaswani / Unsplash

Pope Francis: Our New Holy Father

I admit it. I totally geeked out the last couple of days. Of course, I had been praying for the conclave and for whoever would become our new Holy Father. But as yesterday’s “smoke watch” drew near, I felt nervous and excited. I had Vatican Radio streaming in the background, and I had a window open on my Mac with the live Vatican feed on YouTube. I just had a hunch that that vote would be the vote, and I became more convinced of it the longer it took for the smoke to arrive.

And then it came. White smoke! A new pope had been elected! It seemed like the whole world held its breath in anticipation… Who is our new pope?

Honestly, I had expected to hear a name that I recognized, someone listed among the top papabile. But I did not recognize the name Jorge Mario Bergoglio. It didn’t matter. Within minutes, even seconds, he endeared himself to my heart. Like St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis is a man of humility and prayer.

His announcement, his brief greeting, and his first blessing – Urbi et Orbi – happened all too quickly. And then it was over. But I kept asking myself, “Who is this man?” I had to know more.

I did some research last night, and I came across an excellent blog post by my friend Angela Sealana at In that post, Angela listed several of her favorite “stories” of our new pope. Toward the end she recommended reading the letter that Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio had written to the faithful of his archdiocese in Buenos Aires for Ash Wednesday of this year, and she included a link to an English translation of that letter.

I am somewhat rusty, but I do speak Spanish, and I wanted to read the letter in the original language. It is readily available on the website for the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires. I loved the power and simplicity of the letter, and I want to share it with you.

Below you will find my own translation of the letter written on February 13 of this year. Read it. Think about it. Pray with it. And let me know what you think in the comments below!

Lenten Letter of Pope Francis Written on Ash Wednesday 2013 (while still Cardinal Bergoglio)

To the priests, religious and laity of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires.

Rend your hearts and not your garments;return now to the Lord your God,because He is compassionate and merciful,slow to anger, and rich in mercy…  (Joel 2:13)

Little by little we accustom ourselves to hear and to see, by means of the communications media, the dark chronicle of contemporary society, presented almost with a perverse rejoicing, and also we accustom ourselves to touch it and to feel it in our surroundings and in our own flesh. The drama is in the street, in the neighborhood, in our house, and in our hearts. We live with the violence that kills, that destroys families, that stirs up wars and conflicts in so many countries of the world. We live with the envy, the hatred, the calumny, the worldliness in our hearts.

The suffering of the innocent and peaceful people does not faze us; the disregard of the rights of persons and peoples most fragile is not so far from us; the reign of money with its diabolical effects such as drugs, corruption, the slave trade of people – including children – together with material and moral misery are the common currency of the realm. The destruction of dignified work, painful immigrations and the lack of a future all unite in this symphony.

Our errors and sins as the Church do not remain outside of this great panorama. Selfishness may be rationalized, but that does not diminish it. The lack of ethical values within a society metastasizes in families, in neighborhoods, peoples and cities. This lack of ethical values speaks to us of our own limitations, of our weakness and our incapacity to effect change in this list of destructive realities.

The trap of our impotence causes us to think: Does it make sense to try to change all of this? Is there anything that we can do in this situation? Is it worth it to try if the world continues its carnival dance disguising everything just for a while? Nevertheless, when the mask falls, the truth appears and, although to many it would sound out-of-touch to say so, there will reappear sin, which damages our flesh with all of its destructive force… twisting the destinies of the world and of history.

Lent comes to us like the shout of truth and of certain hope that tells us that “yes, it is possible not to put on make-up and draw plastic smiles on our faces like nothing is going on.” Yes, it is possible that everything can be new and distinct because God continues to be “rich in kindness and mercy, always ready to forgive” and to encourage us to begin again. Today we are again invited to undertake the Paschal journey to Life, a journey that includes the cross and renunciation; that will be uncomfortable but not sterile. We are invited to recognize that something is not going well in ourselves, in society or in the Church, and to change, to turn around, to convert.

Today, the words of the prophet Joel are strong and challenging: Rend the heart, not the clothing: return to the Lord your God. These words are an invitation to the people. No one is excluded.

Rend the heart and not the clothing in an artificial penance without guarantees of the future.

Rend the heart and not the clothing in a fast that technically fulfills the obligation while allowing us to remain satisfied.

Rend the heart and not the clothing in a prayer that is superficial and egotistical and that does not get to the heart of your own life so that it can be touched by God.

Rend the heart so that we can say with the psalmist, “We have sinned.” “The wound of the soul is sin: O poor wound, recognize your Doctor! Show Him the wounds of your sin. And from Him our secret thoughts cannot be hidden, let Him listen to the moaning of your heart. Move Him to compassion with your tears, with your insistence. Be persistent! May He listen to your cries, that your pain may reach him so that, at last, you may hear him say to you: The Lord has pardoned your sin” (St. Gregory the Great).

This is the reality of our human condition. This is the truth that brings us closer to authentic reconciliation… with God and with men. This is not an attempt to discredit self-worth, rather it’s an attempt to penetrate to the depths of our heart and to understand the mystery of suffering and pain that has tied us down for centuries, for thousands of years… since forever.

Rend the heart so that through that crevice we will be able to really see.

Rend the heart, open your hearts, because only in a torn and open heart can the merciful love of the Father enter, He who loves us and heals us.

Rend the heart says the prophet, and Paul practically begs us “to allow yourselves to be reconciled with God.” To change the way of living is the sign and the fruit of a heart torn and reconciled by a love that far surpasses our own.

This is the invitation, before so many wounds that injure us and that can bring us to the temptation of hardening our hearts: Rend your hearts in order to experience in silent and serene prayer the gentleness and tenderness of God.

Rend your hearts in order to hear that echo of so many torn lives… so that indifference does not leave us inert.

Rend your hearts so that you can love with the love with which we are loved, console with the consolation with which we have been consoled, and share that which we have received.

This liturgical season that the Church begins today is not only for us, rather it is also for the transformation of our family, our community, our Church, our country, and the entire world. We have 40 days to convert, to return to the very holiness of God; to convert into collaborators who receive the grace and the possibility to rebuild human life so that all men experience the salvation that Christ has won for us with his death and resurrection.

Together with prayer and penance, as a sign of our faith in the power of Easter that transforms everything, we also prepare ourselves to begin, as in other years, our “Lenten Gesture of Solidarity.” As the Church in Buenos Aires that marches toward Easter and that believes that the Kingdom of God is possible we need to, according to our hearts torn open by our desire for conversion and for love, sprout a grace-filled and effective countenance that alleviates the suffering of so many brothers and sisters that walk together with us. “No act of virtue can be great if it does not benefit others… Therefore, it doesn’t matter if you pass the day away in fasting, or pass the night away sleeping on the hard floor, or if you eat ashes, and sigh continually, if you do not do good to others, then you do nothing great” (St. John Chrysostom).

This year of faith in which we are living is also an opportunity that God gives to us in order to grow and mature in an encounter with the Lord made visible in the suffering faces of so many children with a future, in the trembling hands of the forgotten elderly, and in the shaking knees of so many families who continue to face life without finding anyone to help them.

I want for you a holy Lent, a penitential and fruitful Lent. And, please, I ask that you pray for me.

May Jesus bless you and the Holy Virgin care for you.

Paternally yours,

Card. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J.