“The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and the lives of those who encounter Jesus”: with these words, Pope Francis begins his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, which I want to be the charter of the Archdiocese of Brisbane as we shape the future that Jesus wants.
True joy belongs to the Risen Lord and therefore to Easter, which is why Lent is a preparation for joy. It’s a preparation for a new encounter with the Risen Lord who wants to share his joy with us, but also a preparation for a new encounter with other human beings, especially those who have least. They too open the doorway to joy.
“Examination of conscience” is a phrase with a long pedigree. It speaks of a time – perhaps even daily – when we stand before the truth of our life beyond all denial and self-deception, acknowledging before the God of mercy that we have failed. As a period of preparation, Lent is a privileged time to examine our conscience. It’s a time to sift our heart in order to see more clearly what it is that holds us back from encountering Jesus and each other, what it is that blocks our way to joy.
As we begin the Lenten journey, I offer an examination of conscience in which the words of Pope Francis will lead us. I take the Holy Father’s words and then pose a few questions for you to ponder. The questions are addressed to you individually, but we make this examination of conscience together because all of us have sinned and all need forgiveness. We’re all in this together.
“The great danger in today’s world…is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience” (2)
- Am I conscious of some sense of sadness or anxiety in my life?
- In what ways am I complacent?
- What do I covet – not just desire but desire darkly?
- Do I pursue pleasure, as if the accumulation of pleasures will compensate for a lack of joy?
- Is my conscience in some way blunted or numbed?
“Sometimes we are tempted to find excuses and complain, acting as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met” (7)
Do I make excuses for what I have done and what I have failed to do?
Am I constantly complaining – about other people, about the Church, about society as a whole?
Am I unhappy because I expect too much?
Do I withdraw into myself because things are not just as I want them to be?
“One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses'” (85)
- Am I a disillusioned pessimist, quick to quarrel with others?
- Am I a ‘sourpuss’, quick to be negative and to condemn others?
- Am I a defeatist, too ready to raise the white flag, as if any attempt to proclaim the Good News is doomed before it starts?
- Have I deep down given up on myself, other people, the Church, the wider society, the world, God?
“Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length…looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune” (270)
- Do I protect myself against inconvenience or discomfort, let alone pain or suffering for the sake of the Gospel, wanting Easter but not Calvary?
- Do I look for a cosy niche, either personal or communal, which can protect me against the needs, the anxieties, the sufferings of others?
- Do I see the Church as a comfy place for me to be rather than a field-hospital for the wounded whom we are called to tend?
“Today and always, the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel. We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor” (48)
- Do I really believe that the poor are the first to whom Jesus speaks the Good News?
- Do I ask who the poor really are in our society?
- Do I seek them out or do I avoid them?
- Am I willing to listen to them and learn from them?
- What might I learn from them?
- Do I accept the inseparable bond between my faith and the poor?
“A missionary heart…never closes itself off, never retreats into its own security, never opts for rigidity and defensiveness” (45)
- Do I have a missionary heart?
- Or do I give into individualism, preferring to retire into my own security, even the supposedly safe haven of a Church that looks inward rather than outward?
- Am I too rigid in my convictions and positions, unwilling to listen to others and see things from their point of view?
- Do I see the call to evangelize and the effort it involves as an optional extra in my life rather than part of my very identity as one baptized?
“[One trap is] a sort of inferiority complex which leads [the baptized] to conceal their Christian identity and convictions. They end up stifling the joy of mission with a kind of obsession about being like everyone else and possessing what everyone else possesses” (79)
- In what ways does being Christian mean being different?
- Do I forget or seek to deny that difference?
- Do I have that sense of inferiority, always wanting to be the same as other people?
- Do I play down my Christian identity and convictions in an attempt to be just like everyone else?
- Do I see the work of evangelization as a burden or imposition to be accepted by others but not by me?
“[Another trap is] acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist” (80)
- Do I really act as if God does not exist – feel, think and make decisions as if God were far removed from the reality of my life?
- Similarly with the poor – is it as if they hardly exist?
- And what about those who have never heard the Good News: have they gone missing too?
- What have I been given that other people may need or be crying out for?
The Holy Father says that “a pastoral and missionary conversion…cannot leave things as they presently are” (25). At the heart of this transformation, which is surely the goal of Lent, there is what the Holy Father calls “the power of tenderness” (270) or even what he calls elsewhere “the revolution of tenderness” (88). The tenderness of God is the key to it all – that power which has touched us in the depth of our being and which we are sent to offer to others, especially those who need it most in a world that can be brutal. This tenderness is the only power that can really turn our life around at those points where it needs to be turned around. In the end, the Resurrection of Jesus shows the true power, the true revolution of God’s tenderness. It’s this revolution which brings the eternal freshness of the Gospel, the freshness of Easter morning.
The journey of faith is always a journey from desolation to joy, from isolation to communion. Through the days of Lent we face the often concealed or half-recognized truth of our own desolation and isolation. We do this so that when we come to Easter, we will come to the joy and the communion of which the Pope speaks in The Joy of Gospel and which, as he says, fill the heart and the entire life of those who encounter the Risen Lord. May it be so this Easter for all the baptized of the Archdiocese of Brisbane, called and sent to be “missionary disciples”.
+ Mark Coleridge
Ash Wednesday 2014