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Celebrating Lent in the Year of Mercy. By Lambert Mbom

Lent 2016 is here. It is 15 days old. It came in quite early. Did we not just celebrate Christmas? Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter. But everything points to Easter, the culmination of our Christian faith. This year’s celebration of Lent has an added value and significance given it is the Year of Mercy. Pope Francis inaugurated this year while on pilgrimage to war torn Central African Republic on the last lap of his apostolic visit to Africa last December 2015. While he spent the first Sunday of Advent in Africa, Pope Francis spent the First Sunday of Lent in Mexico. The Christian life is in essence a pilgrimage. This Lent seems to be an appropriate time to follow the example of Pope Francis and go on a pilgrimage but more than just a physical journey, it is an opportune moment to fatten our spiritual leanness and trim our spiritual excesses.

As I reflected on what this Lent holds for me, I found the answer in Pope Francis’s homily at Ecatepec, Mexico. It was not just the fact that in visiting this poor and crime ridden city, Pope Francis struck a favorite chord in his ministry namely going out “to the periphery” but also the message he delivered on that first Sunday of Lent.

Vatican Radio’s description of Ecatepec seems to bear resemblance to the messiness of the spiritual life for some of us: “It’s now an ugly sprawl of a shanty town littered with rubbish in one of Mexico’s ‘barrio bravo’.  An expression meaning a lawless neighborhood where organized crime, pollution and poverty reign and where most people fear to tread.”

In his homily for first Sunday of Lent, Pope Francis exhorted us all to ward off temptations by following the example of Christ. In this familiar passage of the Temptation of Christ, we find Christ using Scriptures to respond to the devil’s temptations. The Gospel passage referring to Scriptures notes that “It is written…” and “It also says…” Even the devil takes up the example of Christ and in Luke’s account the devil builds the third temptation from scriptures and quotes the Psalm. Pope Francis however exhorts us not to dialogue with the devil.

In his off the cuff remarks, Pope Francis calls us to imitate Christ and use Scriptures to fight off the devil’s temptation. This is a continuation of his Lenten message of 2016 where he says: “For all of us, then the season of Lent in this jubilee year is a favorable time to overcome our existential alienation by listening to God’s word and by practicing the works of mercy.” In the Pope’s message for Lent 2016, Pope Francis calls for an “attentive listening to the Word of God” stressing the “prayerful listening to God’s word, especially His prophetic words.”

But just what does “attentive listening to the word of God” entail? There is a serious charge against us Catholics by our other Christians that we do not know the bible. We shall take up that charge on a different day. Let each of us examine their conscience and find out where we are on this. How familiar are we with the word of God. I have heard it repeated to me very often that you must know someone to love the person. One of the best ways to know God is in and through the bible. Not just memorizing some stock verses and parroting them but actually praying with the Bible.

One method of attentive listening is the Church’s ancient practice of lectio divina. This is a way of encountering God through Scriptures normally by reading a specific passage from the Bible and using that as the basis for prayer. Lectio Divina is not the traditional bible sharing or reading the bible for edification but letting oneself be soaked in and steeping oneself in Scriptures.

Lectio Divina is characterized by four steps namely: Reading, Thinking, Praying and Acting. The renowned professor of scripture, Fr James Martin (SJ) describes the process thus: Reading: You pick a scriptural text and then you read it.  At the most basic level, you ask: What is going on in this passage? What does the text say? Meditation: What is God saying to me through this text? At this point, you ask whether there is something that God might want to reveal to you? It is recommended that one chooses a word or phrase from the passage and meditate on it. Prayer: What do I want to tell God about this text? Then Action: We are always called upon to do something: Quite simply Go forth and be a witness. This year, we are called to practice the works of mercy.

We live in a very noisy world and we are bombarded by many distractions and attractions. We hear too many discordant voices and hence end up hallucinating. Our pilgrimage this Lent should help us center our lives on God by listening attentively to Him. Let us walk with God this Lent through Sacred Scriptures. Ignorance of Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.

Pope Francis in the last paragraph of his 2016 Lenten message exhorts us: “Let us not waste this season of Lent, so favourable(sic) a time for conversion!” Recalling God’s words of mercy written all over the Bible we too should become missionaries of mercy in this year of mercy.

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Visiting the sick in the Year of Mercy by Lambert Mbom

field-hospital-open.jpg

The Basilica of the National Shrine – last Tuesday launched its 2016 Speaker and Event Series with a splendid lecture on “Compassion – The Thirst of God: Visiting the sick as a work of mercy” by Msgr. Brian Bransfield, recently elected General Secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Pope Francis has given us an incredible year, said Bransfield. In fact, he has given us two gifts namely the notion of the Church as a field hospital where we meet Jesus Christ. And secondly, Pope Francis has introduced us to the Year of Mercy.

In an interview to the Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, published in the Catholic magazine, America in September 2013, Pope Francis in answer to the question on the kind of Church he dreams of, responded: “I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle…” This possibly explains why of all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy this first lecture of the year focused on visiting the sick.

The Year of Mercy officially launched last December 8th, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and runs through to November 2016, Solemnity of Christ the King.

The Holy Father invites us to deepen our notion of mercy through an understanding of the compassion of God, a compassion manifested in Christ, Bransfield told the over 40 persons that had stayed after evening mass to listen to him.

It is no mere coincidence that this jubilee Year of Mercy kicked off on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception which happens to be the patronal feast of the Basilica of the National Shrine. The Basilica is intimately connected to this Year of Mercy then.

In his recommendations for the celebration of this year, Pope Francis calls on Catholics to reflect on and live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, one of which is visiting the sick. Bransfield submits that compassion is at the heart of visiting the sick.

Drawing from a rich pastoral experience while ministering to the sick in a large parish in his diocese of origin, Philadelphia, he recounted a life changing experience with a dying woman in a hospice room. As he blessed her, she repeated the blessing after him but ended up saying: May the blessing of the Lord come upon you and keep your faith alive. Visiting the sick is an act of faith and benefits both the guest and the visitor.

“We may think we do the sick a favor when we visit them. In some sense we do,” said Bransfield. Christ invites us to the ministry of the sick. He himself touched the leper and entered into the margins of life. The speaker urged all to enter into the uncomfortable space of visiting the sick. They are Jesus Christ to us.

These words echo a favorite theme of Pope Francis namely reaching out to the peripheries.

“We must get out of ourselves and go toward the periphery. We must avoid the spiritual disease of the Church that can become self-absorbed: when this happens, the Church itself becomes sick. […] Between a Church that goes into the street and gets into an accident and a Church that is sick with self-referentiality, I have no doubts in preferring the first. (Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the pre-conclave General Congregation of the Cardinals, March 2013)

Msgr. Bransfield then explained the Christo-centric character of visiting the sick noting that, “When we visit the sick, we imitate Christ the physician; when we visit the sic, we visit Christ the victim. But it is also an act of compassion.” But just what does it mean to be compassionate?

Availing of the parables of the Good Samaritan and Prodigal son, Msgr.Bransfield elucidated the meaning of compassion beyond just feeling sorry for someone. He demonstrated how the anonymous man who fell in the hands of robbers and laid wounded is doubly hurt by the rejection especially of the priest and Levite who passed by. Many of the sick in our community feel this sense of abandonment and rejection in hospitals, hospices and nursing homes, he intimated.

The Samaritan’s action teaches us compassion. The parable recounts that the Samaritan was traveling and was moved with compassion for the victim. The essence of compassion here is conveyed from the Greek meaning of compassion, “splekchne” – inner most places are trembling with the presence of God. The Father in the parable of the prodigal son is also moved with compassion – he is trembling.

We visit the sick because Christ leads us there and he ministers to us and to the sick.

“On the Cross, Christ gives new meaning to all suffering. He cries out: I thirst, he empties everything. In this cry of I thirst, Christ calls us to works of mercy. He invites us to visit the sick: I was sick and you visited me. He draws us to the mercy of God. We enter into God’s mercy as we step closer to those who are sick,” concluded Bransfield.

At the end of the talk, the speaker had the opportunity to autograph some of his books which were on sale in memorial hall out of the Crypt Church where the lecture had taken place. The Next lecture will be on February 17th after the 5:15pm mass.

 

Walk With Francis: Pope Francis in the US by Lambert Mbom

In 30 days’ time, Pope Francis will be in the US on an official and pastoral visit that will bring him to Washington DC, New York and Philadelphia. Ahead of this visit, the archdiocese of Washington D.C. launched a “Walk with Francis” project that invites Christians to honor the pope’s visit by prayer, service and action. Four weeks ahead of this visit, 2278 persons and 54 parishes/organizations have taken the pledge to walk with Francis and 2697 messages shared on social media according to archdiocese’s website, www.walkwithfrancis.org

In preparation for this visit, I have decided to walk with Pope Francis.  I have committed to read five books by and about Pope Francis over the next four weeks. Of course, what better way to begin this journey other than reading his latest encyclical, “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home” Even though touted as an encyclical on the environment, commentaries reveal it is groundbreaking in many respects and Franciscan. It sure will make Stephen Beale’s “7 Papal encyclicals that changed the world.”http://catholicexchange.com/7-papal-encyclicals-that-changed-the-world

Were the Pope to call me on my personal cellphone or were I to receive a personal letter in the mail from the Pope, it would be historic. Yet, surprisingly, I left this personal letter unread since May 24th, 2015. Well, since the Pope will be in town, it seems incumbent that one reads this letter so as not to be embarrassed by the question: Have you read the letter I sent to you three months ago?

Child psychologists have us believe that the first two years in the development a child are very important. The veil of obscurity of Rev. Jorge Bergoglio who became Pope Francis tapers off in the first two years of his pontificate. He is the surprised choice to shepherd the Church and in deed he is a Pope of Surprises. Two books that capture the defining infancy of his papacy are, The Church of Mercy: A Vision of the Church and Antonio Tornelli’s, Fioretti-The Little Flowers of Pope Francis.

Pope Francis’ ecclesiology is worth examining to be able to understand his statements and declarations. For an avowed conservative or one with conservative trappings like me, it is imperative to discern where Francis is taking the Church to. In the light of the forthcoming Synod on the Family (October 4-25, 2015), and in preparation for the Year of Mercy (December 8, 2015 – November 20, 2016), the Vatican’s authorized Church of Mercy is a must read.

The Vatican Insider, Tornelli’s “The Little Flowers…” also celebrates the first year of the Francis Pontificate offering “inspiring stories, incidents, encounters, and excerpts from the writings and talks of Pope Francis”

It would be interesting to see the points of convergence and divergence between the two books celebrating the first anniversary of Pope Francis’ pontificate.

To understand where Pope Francis is leading the Church to, it is just fitting to know who he is and where he is coming from.  Austen Ivereigh’s, The Great Reformer: Francis and the making of a Radical Pope is tempting enough and I look forward to devouring it nine months after getting an autographed copy of this work last December at its launch at Georgetown University.

Given that Pope Francis is coming to the United States, it seems appropriate to savor some American flavor and who else but John Allen merits consideration. His most recent publication, “The Francis miracle: Inside the transformation of the Pope and the Church,” is quite enticing.

Join me on this pilgrimage!

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