BY BISHOP HOWARD J. HUBBARD
Later this month, we'll begin the sacred season of Lent, whereby we ready ourselves through 40 days of preparation to celebrate the greatest feast of our Christian faith, Easter.
We Christians believe that by His passion, death and resurrection, Jesus freed us from our sins and offered us a share in God's own life. However, if we are to participate in this divine life both here on earth and fully in the heavenly kingdom, we must cooperate with God's love and grace by turning away from our inclination to sinfulness and turning toward the plan of life God has revealed to us through His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
The traditional way of journeying this path of Lent is through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. From a negative perspective, these time-tested and track-proven spiritual exercises lead us to give up those selfish attitudes and self-destructive behaviors which inhibit us from becoming the person God has called us to be. From a positive perspective, these Lenten observances lead us to turn our attention to sharing our time, talent and resources with others.
What to give up
What are some of the things we might consider giving up this Lent so that we may better fulfill our baptismal promises and the call to discipleship we have received? Here are a few suggestions:
• Give up complaining and focus on gratitude.
• Give up anger and be more patient.
• Give up bitterness and turn toward forgiveness. We are never more like God than when we extend healing and pardon to those who have harmed us.
• Give up pettiness and become mature.
• Give up jealousy and pray for trust. Jealousy only tears us down and prevents us from becoming that unique and special person we have the potential to be.
• Give up worry and discouragement and become full of hope. If God is with us, as God certainly is, why put ourselves down and fret about things we can't change anyway?
In addition to these things we might consider giving up during Lent, on a more positive note, there are things we might consider doing:
• reading and reflecting upon a passage of the Scriptures each day;
• making the Stations of the Cross or reciting the Rosary;
• attending Mass more frequently;
• making a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament;
• forgoing entertainment and using the money saved for a contribution to a local food pantry or to Operation Rice Bowl, both of which seek to alleviate the terrible problem of hunger in our world; or
• not watching as much TV or spending less time on the internet, and instead sharing more of our time with others who would value our companionship.
What to add on
Let me also encourage us to participate this Lent in two diocesan initiatives: "The Light is On for You" initiative, which invites us to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation during the course of the Lenten season; and our "Amazing God" evangelization process, which is now in its third year.
Unfortunately, over the past half-century, there has been a dramatic decline in the celebration of the healing sacrament of reconciliation. The reasons for this are manifold: for example, in our culture, too often we have lost a sense of sin.
Sin, in the minds of many, is a throwback to an unenlightened age when religious and civic leaders sought to maintain societal power and control by vigilant oversight and by imposing restrictions and penalties on people's behavior. However, today, many perceive morality to be based not on any externally imposed objective standards, but upon one's own subjective determination.
Even if one agreed with such an assessment, which I certainly do not, there is no question that evil exists in the world and that the harm it inflicts upon individuals, families and society is real and painful.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Sin is an offense against God and reason, truth and right conscience; it is a failure in genuine love of God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It ruins our nature and injures human solidarity."
Reflect on sin
In classic Catholic tradition, sin is a violation of the 10 Commandments and the laws of the Church. As the book of Genesis suggests, like the first sin, it is disobedience - a revolt against God through the will to become "like God." The so-called seven deadly or capital sins are as real today as when they were articulated in the Middle Ages: pride, envy, greed, anger, lust, sloth and gluttony.
We see the fruits of this behavior all around us: in pornography, adultery, child sexual abuse and sexual trafficking; in financial fraud and deceptive business practices; in neglect of family, work responsibilities and the environment; in bullying through personal interaction or through the anonymity of the blogosphere; in gang and gun violence; in excessive drinking, gambling and abuse of drugs, both legal and illegal; in preoccupation with self and blindness to the urgent needs of others around us, especially the poor; in apathy and indifference to the place of God in our life and the need to acknowledge God's transcendence and our ultimate dependence as creatures upon the Creator.
Jesus came among us to help us recognize these self-destructive behaviors and to repent of them; to seek forgiveness in the sacrament of God's mercy and love, the sacrament of reconciliation. The first step in changing our sinful ways is acknowledging them and asking for God's forgiveness.
I encourage each of us to participate in one of the many opportunities that will be made available in the Diocese this Lent to celebrate this sacrament of God's healing love. No matter how long since we last approached this sacrament, no matter how great our sins, no matter what reluctance, fear or doubt we may have - know that the light is on for us, that God anxiously awaits us and that we will be met with mercy, understanding and joy: that same joy that Jesus extended to the adulterous Samaritan woman, the conniving Zacheus, the denying Peter and the thief who hung beside Him on Calvary's hill.
Yes, through the sacrament of reconciliation, we will be filled with that inner peace and serenity that God alone can offer.
The spiritual renewal which takes place in the sacrament of reconciliation will then better enable us to participate in our Amazing God initiative, in which we are encouraging the members of our Catholic community to fulfill the mission we have as disciples of Jesus "to proclaim the Good News to the ends of the Earth."
As Christians, we have been given the gift of faith and the responsibility to share it with others. We can be about this ministry of faith-sharing in a variety of ways.
1. First, we can pray for those who have stopped practicing their faith or for those who are unchurched (family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers and classmates), asking God to open their minds and hearts to hear the Good News and the plan of discipleship which God extends to each of us.
2. Second, like Jesus, we can accept people where they are without being arrogant, judgmental, paternalistic or condescending. We can seek to listen to them and to their life stories as He did and then interact with them.
3. Third, we must be willing to share our own faith journey with others preferably by relating personal experiences of how faith has been the motivating, animating and sustaining influence in our lives.
In sharing faith, it's best to focus on the person and work of Jesus and the movement of His Spirit in our lives by communicating personal stories rather than talking about Church doctrine or moral imperatives. In other words, we shouldn't over-intellectualize or be argumentative.
We don't convert others to anything; that is the work of God. Our role is basically to listen to others, to know their concerns, to identify with their struggles and to point out how faith gives purpose, direction and meaning to our lives.
Take the risk
I realize that sharing our faith with others entails risk and takes courage. When we open ourselves to others in this way, we never know how they will respond. They may become angry or defensive, and then we might be the object of their ridicule, scorn or rejection; or those with whom we share may think that we are intruding upon their own private space and cut us off at the pass.
This, however, is a risk we are called to take if we are to be faithful to our baptismal promises and our call to discipleship.
The Rev. Dr. James Czegledi, associate secretary for evangelism, Church growth and worship with the Presbyterian Church in Canada, offers the following tips to share faith, which I believe summarize well how best to engage in our Amazing God evangelization initiative:
• Show the personal presence of God in what we do.
• Tell our faith story using ordinary language.
• Don't criticize or judge. None of us have lived a perfect life.
• Be supportive and encouraging.
• Try not to quote others.
• Share our own personal journey.
• Include our struggles of doubt and pain as well as joy, telling how our faith in Christ has helped us, and offer ways in which this may help others.
• Show and tell how we have integrated faith in our life.
May this Lent, then, be a time to employ the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, which lead us to fulfill our baptismal promises by turning away from sin and turning toward our God of love by humbly seeking God's forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation and by finding the fortitude and strength to join in our Amazing God initiative of sharing our faith with others.
If we do this during the forthcoming Lenten season, we will arrive at the Easter feast with minds and hearts renewed and ever closer to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
(February 7, 2013)