By Frank Wessling
This year at the end of February, the traditional Catholic Press Month in the church of this country, we also begin Lent. Last week’s issue of The Catholic Messenger was an example of how this newspaper is food for the new season. With shameless borrowing from two meaty articles in the Feb. 19 issue, here is a thinking Catholic diet for Lent.
The reason for this season is “conversion,” wrote Father Joseph DeFrancisco, who teaches theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. The conversion he means is “a slow process of becoming transformed into the perfect image and likeness of God, in and through his beloved son, Jesus.” A slow process, not something sudden or quick, one turn and done, but a gradual becoming. . . what? He says becoming nothing less than an image of God.
Is it possible? Little by little, slowly, probably with stumbling and detours along the way, it is possible when we enter into “the dying and rising of Jesus.” The dying: that’s the painful side of conversion where we look honestly at our bad habits and cut them out. Then the rising can come while nurturing new habits that identify with Jesus.
Fr. DeFrancisco finds the essence of Lent in a verse from the Gospel according to John: “(E)very dead branch will be purged, while every good branch will be pruned so as to bring forth more fruit” (John 15:1). He was led to that passage by the great 20th-century spiritual writer Thomas Merton’s book “Seasons of Celebration.”
Catholic Church leadership has worried about “Catholic identity” ever since the great shakeup we went through during and immediately after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). There are issues of corporate identity that the bishops are required to manage, but Lent is a reminder that another, prior identity with Jesus is our common responsibility and goal.
What does that identity look like? If we say it looks like a love that never quits, we’re close. That’s what columnist Father Ron Rolheiser pointed out in last week’s Messenger.
“The greatest gift that we have to give,” he wrote, “is the promise of fidelity; the promise that we will keep trying, that we won’t walk away simply because we got hurt or because we felt unwanted or not properly valued.” And that is the greatest gift we are offered, first in the Godlike gift of parent-love. Our chief task in life is to become such faithful lovers ourselves.
Rolheiser quotes an old man crying after the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. Asked what King meant to him, the man said, “He was a great man because he was faithful. He believed in us when we had stopped believing in ourselves. He stayed with us even when we weren’t worth staying with.”
This doesn’t mean that Martin Luther King had to be perfect, and that we must be perfect. It only means that we don’t quit on the people we commit ourselves to. It means that a vow of marriage is an act of faith more than love. Young people sometimes don’t realize that because they don’t yet know much about love. When they do suspect the central role of faith, and that marriage really means jumping off a cliff together, they frequently avoid it. Some kind of dying seems inevitable and they hold back.
The identity of a Christian is with Jesus, who died in a way that turned death into new life. What is his way? As the old man said of Martin Luther King, it is the way of believing in us and staying with us even when we aren’t worth it.
This has nothing to do with feeling Godlike and full of loving-kindness. Rolheiser reminds us that “faith is not simply the good, secure feeling that God exists. Faith is a commitment to a way of living beyond good and secure feelings.” Faith, like any love worthy of the name, ultimately “is not in the head or the heart but in the action of a sustained commitment.”
This is the Godlike identity toward which Lent calls us. It is the reason we attend to our ongoing conversion with acts of self-purging and charity and prayer during Lent. Easter rising does not come without Lenten dying.
We might remember this without The Catholic Messenger, but having The Messenger makes it more likely that we will remember — and be fed with ideas and examples.