With All Your Heart – Lenten Pastoral Message – Week 1
There was a time when Bishops wrote long Pastoral Letters for Lent, which were often read out in sections at Mass each Sunday. Perhaps it is better that, when people go to Mass, they hear a short but well-prepared homily on the Word of God, which is especially powerful during Lent.
The best place for a Pastoral Letter, these days, may be on Social Media, where people can read it at their leisure. In that way it is also available to people who might not be regular Church goers. With that in mind, I plan to offer a short Pastoral Message each Wednesday during Lent. If people read it and think about it, well and good. If it were to spark a conversation in a family or in a parish community, so much the better.
From earliest Christian times, Baptism was always connected with Easter. In the final weeks of their preparation, those who were going to be Baptised were asked to engage in an extended time of prayer and fasting. That is the origin of Lent. The Gospels tell us that, before He began his mission, Jesus fasted and prayed for forty days in the wilderness. By the middle of the fourth century, Lent had been fixed at forty days, so that candidates for Baptism could imitate Jesus in his prayer and fasting, as they were preparing for their mission as disciples.
Most of us were Baptised as infants and, for us, Lent can be seen as an invitation to come back to God with our whole hearts, so that by Easter we can live more fully the new life of the Resurrection. Fasting, or any kind of penance, helps us to develop self control, to reach out to others, and to avoid being too preoccupied with ourselves. Prayer brings us into a deeper relationship with Jesus and then sends us out as His witnesses. Lent is a joyful season; it is about coming home.
For many families, this time of year is associated with preparing for the Sacraments; First Confession, First Communion and Confirmation. It is worth asking ourselves, what kind of preparation is going on – and I don’t mean at school. These Sacraments are important moments in the lives of our children and, of course, we want to celebrate them well. If that celebration includes nice clothes and a meal together, why not? But if that becomes the main focus or if it becomes a competition, then we are missing the point. Holy Communion and Confirmation, along with Baptism, are the Sacraments of Christian Initiation. They are about deepening our relationship with Jesus and that should be the primary focus, not just on the day of the celebration, but throughout childhood and into adult life.
A few years ago, I had a conversation with each of the children preparing for Confirmation in the rural parish where I was working at the time. I asked them: “What would you like your parents to do to help you prepare for Confirmation?” Without any prompting from me, the three answers that kept coming back from them were: “Take me to Mass”; “Teach me my Prayers” and “Tell me about their own Confirmation”. Children will grumble and groan, but privately they say that “peer pressure” is a major problem for them. They appreciate clear guidance and parents have more influence than they think. You will influence your children by your words, but even more by your own actions.
The invitation to come back with all our hearts is not just for parents and children, of course. It is good for all of us, during this season of Lent to ask ourselves how we might be called to draw closer to Jesus and to live more fully the life of Baptism. We owe that to ourselves and to one another. Our young people cannot be expected to live their faith without the support of a vibrant faith community.
From years of hill-walking, I know that the first kilometre can often be the most difficult, until you get air into your lungs and get into a proper rhythm. It gets a bit easier after that, especially if you are not on your own. Discipleship is like that. It is helpful to remember that Jesus, who sent his disciples out in pairs, also said: “know that I am with you always”.
Bishop Kevin, Ash Wednesday 22nd February 2023.