Many years ago my father took me to the celebration of the Stations of the Cross in a small neighboring town. The one thing I remember to this day is the sermon. The elderly parish priest, wearing an old cassock and surplice climbed into the pulpit with great difficulty. He paused for a moment, catching his breath while glaring at the small congregation. When everyone was duly uncomfortable with the unexpected pause, he started to describe hell in frightening details, explaining the gruesome fate awaiting each one of us. Suddenly he stopped his loud ranting and stared at me intently. While pointing his wiry finger at me he whispered: “Even you, son, are a sinner.” And raising his voice he ended his homily dramatically stating: “Beware of Hell!”
It took days before I was able to sleep again and even to this day I really don’t want to end up in hell. Although I suppose that is for the best, maybe traumatizing people is not the preferred way to communicate the message.
There are two ways to invite people to better their lives: the via negativa or negative way and the via positiva or positive way. The via negative, on the one hand emphasizes our sinfulness and points out the awful things awaiting us, sinners. This approach often relies on someone other than ourselves to point out the wrong we did. The via positive, on the other hand invites us to be better and to live up to our baptismal mission, affirming the good in all of us. In this approach, we are the ones who take stock of our lives and commit ourselves to do better. The priest of my past clearly adhered to the via negative. By contrast, Pope Francis seems to promote the via positiva as he famously stated on a number of occasions: “Who am I to judge?”
The season of Lent is a perfect time to take stock of our individual lives, following the via positiva. We might ask ourselves: “How am I living out my Christian calling? Am I truly embodying the Gospel? Am I bringing Christ to the world, in deed and word?” This kind of self-examination is not a punishing or negative exercise. Rather, it is a positive and encouraging exercise and an essential part of our ongoing journey toward becoming better Christians. Other questions we might ask ourselves: “How do I promote Jesus’ vision for our world? How can I do that better?” And as we do this, it is very important that we don’t get stuck in details. We must embrace the broader picture of our spiritual and moral lives. Too often we fail to see the moral forest in favor of one sinful tree. Though admittedly, this approach is more often used when judging others.
And let’s remember that all of us have closets filled with moral and spiritual skeletons: skeletons of hatred, jealousy, envy, pride, self-righteousness, etc. This is what I suspect was the message the scary priest had for me so many years ago. Lent is a good time to open our closets and deal with those skeletons as it affords us the time to take a spiritual inventory and make changes where warranted. Once we embrace our own sinfulness, we will more than likely become more generous toward the sins of others. That was the message of the homily Pope Francis preached last Monday.
He ended his homily by saying: "May the Lord, in this Lent give us the grace to learn to judge ourselves” and say, "Have mercy on me, Lord, help me to be ashamed and grant me mercy, so I may be merciful to others". Let us all take this to heart.