One of my most enduring memories of Ash Wednesday takes me back to a visit I made to a parish in our sister diocese of Bamenda in Cameroon in the early 90s. The first Mass for Ash Wednesday was celebrated at 6.30 in the morning and I was woken at 5am by the sounds of subdued conversation and the shuffling of many feet. When I emerged from my room, I found the compound of the parish filled, literally, with hundreds of people who had come for the Mass at 6.30. Many of them had walked for 10 or 15 kilometres through the night to be at the Mass and receive the Ashes. They take Lent very seriously there. I've never forgotten that experience and I share it with you all to encourage you to find in your hearts the courage and the commitment to take this coming season of Lent very seriously and to be generous in what you undertake for the Lord. For centuries, our Lenten observance has had as its mainstay those three actions which are so strongly highlighted in Ash Wednesday's Gospel. Jesus says: "When you give alms when you pray when you fast." Note that He doesn't use the word "if" but "when." Lent is a time for generous giving and sharing; it,s a time for discipline and asceticism and it,s a time for prayer this is what the season means for us. As Catholics, this is, as they say, what we do. But it's not just a journey into self-perfection. This is about moving towards that great celebration, which is Easter, and towards a deeper and deeper commitment of our lives to Christ because we are the community of his witnesses and his disciples. What we undertake in the way of almsgiving, fasting and prayer is a personal decision for each one of us but whatever we do, we do together. We celebrate this time in community. Together, we seek to become a generous, disciplined and prayerful people because we want to be able to celebrate Easter with as much joy and love as we can. We do it together and we do it for love of the Lord, for love of one another and for love of the good and beautiful world in which we live. This year, CAFOD and other Catholic agencies are encouraging us all to live more simply. 'livesimply' is the slogan and it challenges us to live with an emphasis much less on our own needs and with a much greater emphasis on the needs of others and on the needs of the environment. No longer are we to focus narrowly on ourselves and on what we want. We are called to reach out to the whole human family, and to the world in which we live in solidarity and love. It means not only that we 'live simply' but that we 'simply live' in the fullness of all that is meant by those words. The'livesimply' network offers a prayer - and it's one that I shall be using in the next 6 weeks. I offer it to you in the hope that it will help you to focus on the generosity, discipline and prayer to which Lent challenges us. 'Compassionate and loving God, you created the world for us all to share, a world of beauty and plenty. Create in us a desire to live simply, so that our lives may reflect your generosity. Creator God, you gave us responsibility for the earth, a world of riches and delight. Create in us a desire to live sustainably, so that those who follow after us may enjoy the fruits of your creation. God of peace and justice, you give us the capacity to change, to bring about a world that mirrors your wisdom. Create in us a desire to act in solidarity, so that the pillars of injustice crumble and those now crushed are set free." When - and not if - we give generously to those in need at this time; when - and not if - we discipline our appetites with fasting and share what we have with others; when - and not if - we pray with renewed faith and fervour in these days, then, we do all these things in the simplicity of spirit which recognises that God is at the heart of everyone and everything. We recognise that the good and beautiful world, which is God,s gift to us, isn't just for us but for everyone. We care for its riches so that they are there for everybody, and especially for generations coming after us. We recognise and welcome all with whom we share our world as brothers and sisters because Christ is brother to us all. If we can do these things, then our Lenten journey will be a true journey of faith. We will come to Easter, not just with a sigh of relief that the penance is over, but with true happiness, with joy and with thanksgiving. Alleluia really will be our song. Live simply, and the world and the whole human family can be saved. Live simply, and with faith, and we - and our world - will be transformed. Renewed and healed, with hearts that have been changed, we will rise with Christ to new life and new hope. May God bless you all, To be read or made available at all Masses celebrated in the diocese on the weekend of February 17th/18th - the weekend before Ash Wednesday.
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