Lent is a time for repentance and deep listening.
Lent, which began 10 days ago, seems like an excellent time to recall our own personal failings as well as the way Christians have not practiced what we’ve preached.
Pope John Paul II did just this at the beginning of the third millennium in the year 2000. He announced a day of repentance for the universal church to be observed annually on the first Sunday of Lent.
“The recognition of past wrongs,” the pope explained, “serves to reawaken our consciences to the compromises of the present, opening the way to conversion for everyone. Let us forgive and ask forgiveness!”
Put simply, the church should practice what it preaches.
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As a visible symbol of this reconciliation, Pope John Paul journeyed to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in March 2000 for further efforts for reconciliation with the Jewish people, to support Arab Christians and meet with Palestinian leaders. At the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, he placed a prayer in the wall seeking forgiveness for the harm perpetrated against Jews by Christians:
“God of our fathers,” the pope prayed, “you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer. And asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.” Signed in Latin Joannes Paulus II
Later in the day he paid respects at Yad Vashem, the Jewish people’s living memorial to all those who had died in the Holocaust. These profoundly moving events symbolized the pope’s call for repentance by Catholics. Not just once and for all, but as a lifelong process.
Ultimately God’s mercy makes reconciliation possible. God’s grace enables us to surrender our egoism, our fear, and our clutching to power.
The Pope acknowledged other abuses, such as the terrible enslavement of peoples during colonialism: “Christians have often denied the gospel. Yielding to the mentality of power, they have violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples and shown contempt for their cultures and religious traditions.”
Yet others in the papal list were confessions of sins against the dignity of women, which I would like to expand upon.
Though Jesus had a very inclusive ministry with both women and men, the church arose out of a patriarchal society, shaped by Roman-Greek influences. Treatment of women as second-class endured through many centuries. Both St. Augustine and St. Thomas, for instance, considered women to be defective males.
Some years ago I was a delegate to an international gathering of Jesuits in Rome to chart the future of our mission within the church.
I worked on a commission that addressed the unjust treatment and exploitation of women, and we published the document “Jesuits and the Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society.” We acknowledged that “the dominance of men in their relationship with women has found expression in many ways.”
Further, we said, “We are conscious of the damage to the people of God brought about in some cultures by the alienation of women who no longer feel at home in the church and who are not able with integrity to transmit Catholic values to their families, friends and colleagues.”
Perhaps the key resolve was this: “We invite all Jesuits to listen carefully and courageously to the experience of women. There is no substitute for such listening. More than anything else it will bring about change.”
Deep listening is the way forward. It certainly applies as well to other issues of discrimination and oppression.
A personal and institutional resolve to undertake this deep listening would be a great step forward for Lent. It would respond to the clarion call of Jesus to “repent and believe the Good News” (Mark 1:14-15).
Fr. Patrick Howell SJ is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org