‘Tear open your heart and demand renewal’

‘Tear open your heart and demand renewal’

Pope Francis greets a child at a pediatric center in Bangui, Central African Republic, in this Nov. 29, 2015, file photo. The center was renovated with the support from the pope’s charitable funds and donations from hundreds of thousands of other donors.
CNS photo/Vatican Media

In this Lenten season, the church, through the mouth of the prophet Joel, consistently reminds us to “rend our hearts and not our garments,” (Jl 2:13) in our approach to fasting, prayer and almsgiving in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.

What does it mean to “tear open” our hearts in the face of a bruised and suffering world, distorted by violence against God and selfishness in the face of human anguish?

In limited and qualified ways, one word or phrase can sometimes be seen to serve as an emblem or hermeneutical key for an entire pontificate, though oversimplifying is always a dangerous endeavor. In recent decades, Paul VI’s bold assertion that “if you want peace, work for justice” and Benedict XVI’s profound condemnation of a “dictatorship of relativism” served as symbolic lodestars for understanding their priorities and unique ecclesiological visions in their time in the Chair of Saint Peter.

If there is one phrase that most defines Pope Francis’s six years in a leadership role in the Catholic Church, it could arguably be the call to name without fear or hesitation the “globalization of indifference” that infects our contemporary age. The penitential and prophetic demand for renewal of our hearts and an ability to see the world with “eyes cleansed by tears” fits nicely with the exhortations of Joel. If we are not willing to “rend our hearts” toward the often unattended cries of distress and misery in our society, then we cannot claim to be followers of Christ. Laws, doctrines and rituals are undoubtedly worthwhile and always point us toward a God who is the very Sun of Justice. But without affective compassion and shared experience with the disenfranchised, these words will not resound to the depths of our human existence. For Jesus makes unambiguously clear that in reparation for our faults, God “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Mt 9:13).

As Bergoglio put it in 2003 in Buenos Aires: “We have no right to indifference or disinterest or looking the other way. We can’t ‘go on our way’ as they did in the parable [of the Good Samaritan]. We have a responsibility for the wound that is made manifest in society and its people. A new stage is beginning today, marked very profoundly by frailty: frailty of our poorest and most excluded brothers and sisters, frailty of our institutions, frailty of our social bonds. Let us care for the frailty of our wounded people!”

If Lenten disciplines do not help to transform in a lasting way those of us who pledge a commitment to Christ through them, they are of exceedingly little value. The human condition easily leads to a consistent “spiritual amnesia” where we forget our divine mandate or excuse away our shortcomings in relation to it. That is the reason that every Mass begins with a pause to remember and confess our faults of commission and omission and to plead for the Lord to look past them in his magnanimity (“kyrie eleison”). For if God counted with exactitude our culpability and gave human beings only what we deserve, “then who could stand?” (Ps 130:3).

Our confidence in God’s forgiving nature, while never presumptuous, obligates us to model this attitude in our relationships with one another. Thus, our ashes and fasts and abstinences are paths to holiness only insofar as they melt our hearts like wax in the presence of the purifying agapic love of God and neighbor. Solely if we allow our inner selves to be torn asunder in the wretchedness of our fleeting and poor human existence, and the balm of Gilead to exude forth from these shattered centers of our being, can we change ourselves and our world sufficiently in preparation to extol together authentically that “He is truly Risen, as He promised.”

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.

Categories: Columns, Growing in Faith

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