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An agonizing countdown to Lent

| Friday, February 28, 2014

Yesterday a friend sent me one of her habitual “OMG” text messages bemoaning how quickly next week’s arrival of Ash Wednesday has overtaken her psyche. She is the type of person who announces a struggle of the day and then seeks advice or simply an audience to “hear” her never-ending quandaries. She seems so besieged by daily problems that “Drama” should be her middle name.

“Stressing to make my mind and heart pure in preparation to endure the heartache of Easter,” decried her message. Historically, her spiritual spring agony is like an obsession in the name of the Lord, so that her friends can set a liturgical watch by her mania. How much sacrifice is enough? Might my proposed denial of pleasure be too easy a hurdle to overcome? Will a difficult goal be impossible to resist, ensuring that I fail another personal Lenten effort this year? Her fixation for seeking advice overwhelms her friends.

“ENOUGH,” I rudely shot back in all capital letters from my iPhone while my mind resurrected flashes of my own past Lenten passions. My ghostly remembrances rise from a conflicted time in my life that was long on classroom or schoolbook knowledge, but short on life experiences. Today, while better understanding and appreciating human friendship and a sense of community, I still cannot thwart my intolerance of those who are indecisive and over-dependent. In my mind, your personal defeat is only permanent when you lose hope.

I continued texting, “Why do you ruin Fat Tuesday each year by dragging everyone into your self-inflicted manufactured dilemmas? Just do it yourself for a change.”

Last year I had vowed that she would never again haul me into her pre-Lenten muddle. Give up sex. Give up sweets. Give up anything — large or small — but give up trying to entice me into deciding what you should or should not eliminate from your life for the next 40 days. For God’s sake, I thought, there should be a law against anyone who procrastinates so much that it irritates others.

While I satisfied myself for telling her off in my mind, in my heart I knew that I was a haughty, pompous intolerant idiot for lashing back at her. I had become one of those narrow-minded persons Pope Francis had warned about. The pope asked us to examine what kind of love we brought to others and if we treated others like brothers and sisters or if we judged one another. I had failed on all three accounts; I had excluded, marginalized and judged my sister in her time (although one of many annoying times) of need. It is disappointing for me to admit, since I, like many of my generation, consider myself a Pope John XXIII Catholic — one who is less moralizing and more inclusive and tolerant.

Pope Francis will forever be known as the “who am I to judge” pontiff, leading less by non-negotiable ideology and more by an inclusive vision of service that stimulates innovation within church theology and its organizational structure. His presence answered the yearning us “XXIII-ers” have sought for decades, especially that which affects gender, birth control and sexual orientation issues within the Church. Our new fundamental papal outlook on life and the world is as transformative to our faith as any dogma from years past. Someday, we will proudly look back on the Pope Francis Catholics who are incubating within our youth today.

Francis exudes an open perspective that significantly contrasts with the more reactionary approach of earlier papacies. Francis distanced himself from an explicit moralizing and disapproving tone typical of past pontiffs and many sitting bishops. Last March, he unilaterally eased into a truce aimed to lessen the culture wars that over decades had decreased the number of Catholic churchgoers in developed countries, while isolating the Vatican from much of the world. In essence, the reign of Francis is a permanent Lenten call for all Catholics to live God’s merciful love for all people rather than to condemn sinners for having fallen short.

What Lent is about to call us to do, Francis has already done in less than a year as our leader.

John Paul II and Benedict XVI used static tradition to safeguard against the triple threat of secularism, relativism and liberalism — many times at the expense of humankind. For example, when Francis sees acts defined as “an intrinsic moral evil,” he first endorses the existence of the person with love, not the act.

Francis writes in his first major apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” that, “We want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world.”

Lent is a time for gestures of modesty and compassion, for a commitment to help build a new spirit and nourish a renewed soul. I told my friend that I am happy to offer advice that will assist her journey. I will respond not only during Lent, but also for as long as Francis is my pope or I am on this earth. Suddenly, the countdown to Lent seems effortless.

Gary J. Caruso, Notre Dame ‘73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • StephenH

    I feel that you, along with many other progressive, liberal catholics, give pope francis too much credit. The changes that he has brought to the church are in style and tone rather than substance. We all know the church is wrong on gay marriage. The catechism still says being gay is fundamentally disordered. If pope francis knows what is right, as you imply that he does, then he is a wimp for failing to explicitly say that church teachings are wrong. “Who am I to judge?” is a politicians way of dodging a polarizing question.