Pope Francis cautioned on Ash Wednesday against the temptation to allow Lenten prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to be taken over by an “illness of appearances” that cares more about earthly than eternal rewards.
In a homily read by the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin on March 2, the pope said that the rite of receiving ashes was an “austere sign, which leads us to reflect on the transience of our human condition.”
He added that it was “like a medicine that has a bitter taste and yet is effective for curing the illness of appearances, a spiritual illness that enslaves us and makes us dependent on the admiration of others.”
Parolin presided over a live-streamed Ash Wednesday Mass, as well as the blessing and imposition of ashes, in Pope Francis’ place on Wednesday, after the pope was unable to attend due to knee pain.
During the Mass at the first-century Basilica of Santa Sabina, on Rome’s Aventine Hill, the cardinal read the homily prepared by Pope Francis.
“The ashes bespeak the emptiness hiding behind the frenetic quest for worldly rewards,” he said. “They remind us that worldliness is like the dust that is carried away by a slight gust of wind. Sisters and brothers, we are not in this world to chase the wind; our hearts thirst for eternity.”
“Lent,” he underlined, “is the time granted us by the Lord to be renewed, to nurture our interior life and to journey towards Easter, towards the things that do not pass away, towards the reward we are to receive from the Father.”
Pope Francis added that “Lent is also a journey of healing. Not to be changed overnight, but to live each day with a renewed spirit, a different ‘style.’”
Prayer, fasting, and charity, also called almsgiving, are aids to this spiritual healing, he said.
“Purified by the Lenten ashes, purified of the hypocrisy of appearances, they become even more powerful and restore us to a living relationship with God, our brothers and sisters, and ourselves,” he said.
It has been the pope’s tradition to say the Ash Wednesday Mass at the Basilica of Santa Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill following a short procession from the nearby St. Anselm Church.
But due to the coronavirus pandemic, Pope Francis offered Mass at the Vatican in 2021 for a small group of around 100 people.
In 2022, it was announced that Francis would again celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass at the Basilica of Santa Sabina. But last week the Vatican said that Pope Francis had been experiencing “acute gonalgia,” a kind of knee pain, and needed to rest.
The knee pain was also cited as the reason for a last-minute cancellation of the pope’s attendance at the last day of a meeting of bishops and mayors of the Mediterranean region in Florence, Italy, on Feb. 27.
On Wednesday, the Litany of the Saints was sung by cardinals, bishops, priests, Benedictine monks, Dominican friars, and laypeople as they took part in the procession from St. Anselm Church to the Basilica of Santa Sabina.
St. Anselm on the Aventine is overseen by Benedictine monks, while Santa Sabina, a basilica dating to the first century, is the mother church of the Dominican order.
Reading Pope Francis’ homily after the proclamation of the Gospel, Parolin said: “Today, as we embark on the Lenten season, the Lord says to us: ‘Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1).’”
In his homily, the pope gave some indications for how Catholics can carry out prayer, fasting, and almsgiving without falling into the “hypocrisy of appearances.”
Hidden prayer, he said, “becomes the secret to making our lives flourish everywhere else.”
“During this Lenten season, let us pray above all by looking at the Crucified Lord. Let us open our hearts to the touching tenderness of God, and in his wounds place our own wounds and those of our world. Let us not be always in a rush, but find the time to stand in silence before him. Let us rediscover the fruitfulness and simplicity of a heartfelt dialogue with the Lord,” Francis advised.
On almsgiving, the pope said, “if prayer is real, it necessarily bears fruit in charity. And charity sets us free from the worst form of enslavement, which is slavery to self.”
Fasting also detaches us from inordinate self-interest, Pope Francis said. “Fasting is not a diet. Indeed, it sets us free from the self-centered and obsessive quest of physical fitness, in order to help us to keep in shape not only our bodies but our spirit as well. Fasting makes us appreciate things for their true worth.”
Pope Francis’ homily concluded by recalling his appeal for Ash Wednesday to be a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine.
Prayer, charity, and fasting, he said, are not only spiritual medicine for ourselves, but “they can change history.”
“First, because those who experience their effects almost unconsciously pass them on to others; but above all, because prayer, charity, and fasting are the principal ways for God to intervene in our lives and in the world,” he said.
Prayer, fasting, and charity, he said, “are weapons of the spirit and, with them, on this day of prayer and fasting for Ukraine, we implore from God that peace which men and women are incapable of building by themselves.”
“O Lord, you see in secret and you reward us beyond our every expectation,” he prayed. “Hear the prayers of those who trust in you, especially the lowly, those sorely tried, and those who suffer and flee before the roar of weapons. Restore peace to our hearts; once again, grant your peace to our days.”