ROME – Kicking off the liturgical season of Lent, Pope Francis Wednesday said the next 40 days ought to be a time of conversion in which Christians let go of their vices and the things holding them back, and return to the source of healing and love, which is Christ.

As the liturgical season of Lent begins and Christians ponder the words spoken by God through the prophet Joel, “Return to me with all your heart,” the pope suggested reflecting on the image of Jesus on the cross, calling it “the silent throne of God.”

In the wounds of Christ, “We recognize our emptiness, our shortcomings, the wounds of our sin and all the hurt we have experienced,” he said. “Yet there too, we see clearly that God points his finger at no one, but rather opens his arms to embrace us.”

“By kissing those wounds, we will come to realize that there, in life’s most painful wounds, God awaits us with his infinite mercy. Because there, where we are most vulnerable, where we feel the most shame, he came to meet us,” the pope said. “And now he invites us to return to him, to rediscover the joy of being loved.”

Pope Francis spoke during a livestreamed Mass for Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the Catholic Church’s Lenten season, which commemorates the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert before beginning his public ministry.

Due to ongoing restrictions on public gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Mass was not open to the public but was celebrated privately in St. Peter’s Basilica with a handful of concelebrants, servers, and faithful present. Thirty-three cardinals concelebrated the liturgy.

In his homily, Francis recalled the excuses Christians sometimes make for themselves in to delay responding to God’s call to conversion, putting off prayer and good deeds until “tomorrow.”

“In this life, we will always have things to do and excuses to offer, but now is the time to return to God,” he said, insisting that the Lenten season is not so much about the small sacrifices made or the things given up as it is “discerning where our hearts are directed.”

He urged those present and those tuning in via livestream to ask themselves, “Where is my life’s navigation system taking me – towards God or towards myself? Do I live to please the Lord, or to be noticed, praised and promoted? Do I have a ‘wobbly’ heart, which takes a step forward and then one backwards? … Am I content with my hypocrisies, or do I work to free my heart from the duplicity and falsehood that tie it down?”

Lent, he said, is both a return to God and an “exodus” from things that enslave to those that give freedom. The temptation in making this journey, he said, is to keep looking back, clinging to former habits and idols.

“Our journey back to God is blocked by our unhealthy attachments, held back by the seductive snares of our sins, by the false security of money and appearances, by the paralysis of our discontents,” the pope said, insisting that for the journey to be successful, “we have to unmask these illusions.”

Pope Francis then pointed to several biblical figures as examples, including the prodigal son and the leper who came back to Jesus to thank him for his healing, as examples of the right attitudes.

Like the prodigal son, who was able to get back on his feet only after receiving his father’s forgiveness, it is the same for Christians, the pope said, urging faithful to go to confession, which he called “the fist step on our return journey.”

The pope also had a piece of advice for priests who hear those confessions.

“I recommend to confessors, be like fathers, not with a whip, but an embrace,” he said.

Turning to the image of the leper, who was one of 10 healed by Jesus but was the only one who came back to Jesus afterward, Francis said that while all were healed, this man was the only one saved, because “returned to Jesus.”

“All of us have spiritual infirmities that we cannot heal on our own. All of us have deep-seated vices that we cannot uproot alone. All of us have paralyzing fears that we cannot overcome alone,” the pope said, adding, “We need to imitate that leper, who came back to Jesus and threw himself at his feet. We need Jesus’ healing.”

He pointed to the ashes placed one’s head during the Ash Wednesday liturgy, saying they serve as a reminder that “we should no longer live our lives chasing dust, chasing things that are here today and gone tomorrow.”

Rather, he urged faithful to ask the Holy Spirit to rekindle in them the “fire of praise,” which he said, “consumes the ashes of lamentation and resignation.”

Francis stressed that while Christians are making the journey, it is never they who take the initiative. The only reason it is possible to return to God at all, he said, is because Jesus first “came down to us.”

“For our sake, he lowered himself more than we can ever imagine. He became sin, he became death…Not to abandon us but to accompany us on our journey, he embraced our sin and our death,” he said.

“Our journey then is about letting him take us by the hand. The Father who bids us come home is the same who left home to come looking for us; the Lord who heals us is the same who let himself suffer on the cross,” he said.

Pope Francis also insisted that this journey toward reconciliation with God does not depend on one’s own strength or abilities but is based on the primacy of God’s own actions.

“What enables us to return to him is not our own ability or merit, but his offer of grace,” the pope said. “Jesus says this clearly in the Gospel: what makes us just is not the righteousness we show before others, but our sincere relationship with the Father.”

“The beginning of the return to God is the recognition of our need for him and his mercy. This is the right path, the path of humility,” he said.

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