If we allow Christ into our hearts through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, Lent can be a time of conversion and renewal that breaks us of the indifference that Pope Francis calls us to fight in his 2015 Lenten Message.
In some ways, the spread of communications technology has made it harder to care about others. All one has to do is turn on the TV or check the Internet to see images of human suffering and callousness. The sheer volume of pain can become unbearable, so we tune out. Without God’s grace strengthening us, we can only bear so much inhumanity and suffering before we close ourselves off to each other.
But Pope Francis is using his Lenten message to touch on something more problematic—the “globalization of indifference.” He is warning us about the worldwide spread of people who have let their hearts become cold and indifferent and are only concerned with their own comfort and well-being.
This Lent, I invite you to turn away from indifference by harnessing the power of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Fasting and abstinence have a particular ability to soften our hearts. When we are relatively healthy and comfortable, it is easy to forget about the sufferings and injustices that the less well-off endure; it’s easy to be indifferent. But when we deprive ourselves of something good, our sacrifice can put us more in-touch with the sufferings of the less fortunate and create an opening for God to heal us of our indifference.
Because it strips away our comforts and requires discipline to maintain, fasting can also help us see if we are too self-centered or self-indulgent. When our Lenten sacrifices expose our weaknesses, we can turn to the sacrament of reconciliation, where God clothes us with his mercy and restores us as his children.
This experience of returning to the family of God has the beautiful effect of melting our cold hearts and enables us to see everyone as our brother or sister. It brings us out of ourselves and helps us see that everyone needs forgiveness.
The prayers of the Mass describe Lent as a time of joy, but for most people giving up comforts is not a joyful experience. Indeed, receiving God’s mercy is what makes joy possible amidst our sacrifices.
The practice of increasing our prayer during Lent can also help us expand our hearts and combat indifference. It does this by connecting us with God and orienting us toward the eternal life we were created for.
St. Augustine first experienced this when he began listening to the preaching of St. Ambrose, but the turning point for him occurred when he was outdoors and heard a child singing, “Take and read. Take and read.” He took this as a command from God and picked up the Bible to read it, opening to Romans 13:13-14. St. Augustine was so moved by St. Paul’s exhortation to leave behind a life of drunkenness, sexual excess and jealousy, and to put on Christ that he turned from his life of sin.
I encourage you to follow St. Augustine’s example this Lent and commit yourself to reading the Scriptures daily, most especially the four Gospels. Christ will draw you out of yourself through his word and help you to live for others.
Pope Francis also urges us to pursue conversion through prayer by developing a relationship with the communion of saints. “Together with the saints who have found their fulfilment in God,” he writes, “we form part of that communion in which indifference is conquered by love.” When we connect to that communion, we are able to share in the power of Christ’s victory over hatred, indifference and hard heartedness.
Finally, we can combat indifference by giving to those who are spiritually or materially poor. Perhaps the most obvious example of indifference occurs when we walk or drive past a homeless person and ignore them. Some of us maintain our distance from those in need because we feel powerless to help them. But even if you are only able to give the gift of your conversation, you are opening your heart instead of closing it.
By engaging in acts of charity, the pope says, we experience “a call to conversion, since their need reminds me of the uncertainty of my own life and my dependence on God and my brothers and sisters.”
We need the Holy Spirit to enliven our hearts as we take up prayer, fasting and almsgiving this Lent. Let us pray for the openness to allow the Holy Spirit to pierce our hearts and conform them to Christ’s, so that they are no longer cold but aflame with divine love.