Bishop Bergie’s Lent 2016 Message

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My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Only a few weeks ago (January 12, 2016) our Holy Father, Pope Francis, released a book entitled, The Name of God is Mercy. It presents his understanding and experience of mercy. The Holy Father offers his reflections as a means of helping us live the Year of Mercy. He wants us to open our hearts and allow Jesus to come to us. He is asking us to approach the confessional with faith and to try to be merciful to others. There is no question that God’s mercy is a central theme of the pontificate of Pope Francis. It is also appropriate that we focus on this theme during the Season of Lent.

On the Fourth Sunday of Lent we are presented with the familiar parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:13, 11-32). The focus is the merciful Father who is waiting for his son’s return. The younger son has squandered his inheritance and is physically and spiritually broken due to his immoral lifestyle and famine in the land where he is living. We are told that after some reflection he “came to himself (another way to say this is, “coming to his senses”) and recognized that he could return home to his father. He believes that his actions have broken the relationship with his father (“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”) He knows that his father is both compassionate and just and hopes that he will respond favourably to his return. What the son did not fully appreciate was his father’s greatest quality – he was merciful. When the father sees his son returning home, he runs to greet him. The robe, ring, and sandals, given to the son by the father demonstrate that he has always been his son, never a hired hand. The son now experiences his father’s mercy for he has been forgiven, healed, and restored. Lent can also be a time of forgiveness, healing, and restoration for each one of us if we prayerfully reflect on our current situation and open our hearts to God’s mercy. Like the Prodigal Son, we may also realize
that our lives need to change and then we will “come home”.

In his book on mercy Pope Francis states, “Mercy exists, … if you don’t recognize yourself as a sinner, it means you don’t want to receive it, it means that you don’t feel the need for it.” (The Name of God is Mercy) To receive mercy we need to be humble enough to admit we are sinners and in this way model the Prodigal Son. This is not easy. Unfortunately our attitude may be more like the older brother of the Gospel parable who believed he was much better than his brother because he had worked hard, and was always faithful and obedient to his father. He too was blind to his father’s mercy and allowed his heart to be hardened. The truth is that the older brother was also a sinner and in need of mercy. Since he could not acknowledge this, he was unable to join in the celebration of his brother’s return. Sometimes we may feel so comfortable in our sin that we do not see any reason to change or we justify ourselves and our behaviours. Unfortunately, we see no need for conversion in our lives.

The Church celebrates the “sinners return” in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is the first step to coming home to Christ. It is the sacrament of God’s mercy where we find forgiveness and healing. I assure you that every priest in our diocese sees himself as a physician of the soul who wishes to bring healing in this sacrament. In the document proclaiming the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis writes, “Confessors are called to embrace the repentant son who comes back home and to express the joy of having him back again. Let us never tire of also going out to the other son who stands outside, incapable of rejoicing, in order to explain to him his judgement is not severe and unjust and meaningless in light of the father’s boundless mercy. (MV 17)

During Lent there is a greater emphasis on this beautiful sacrament. Once again we will have a day where the Sacrament of Reconciliation will be offered in all of our parishes from 10 am until 2 pm with Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The date will be Saturday, March 5, which is the Saturday before the Fourth Sunday of Lent. There will be many other opportunities throughout Lent and the Year of Mercy in your parishes to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I invite you to celebrate this sacrament and not to be afraid, especially if it has been many years since your last confession. Reflect upon the parable of the Prodigal Son and come to the merciful Father. For those who feel that they do not need this sacrament or are having difficulty seeing or acknowledging their sin I pray that you will receive the grace to see this sacrament as a means of renewal in your life. Pope Francis states, “The Lord of mercy always forgives me; he always offers me the possibility of starting over. He loves me for what I am; he wants to raise me up; and he extends his hand to me. . . For as long as we are alive it is always possible to start over, all we have to do is let Jesus embrace us and forgive us.” (The Name of God is Mercy) This is a sacrament that is rooted in hope and a new beginning; it is truly “good news”.

Mercy is God’s loving gaze turned toward the sinner; it is the Father waiting to embrace his Prodigal Son upon his return. It is experienced most perfectly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and is lived out through the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. Lent provides us with an incredible opportunity to focus on God’s mercy. We can do this in the context of the three pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In our prayer let us spend some time meditating on the meaning of mercy. Let us also prayerfully prepare to celebrate the sacrament of mercy. Fasting and almsgiving can also be incorporated into the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy as we deny ourselves so that we can focus on the needs of others. In this way we will put into practise what we say each Sunday in our Jubilee prayer, “In being transformed by mercy, may we become witnesses of mercy, bringing healing and hope to others.”

May the Season of Lent be a time of conversion and spiritual renewal for all of us as we contemplate, celebrate and live the gift of mercy.

Mary Mother of Mercy, pray for us.

Yours sincerely in Christ,
Most Reverend Gerard Bergie, D.D.
Bishop of St. Catharines