Giving up cold hearts for Lent

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.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.