Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
March 5, 2003
1. Every year on this day, Ash Wednesday, the Church begins a spiritual journey, a renewal of her existence and a rediscovery of her life with God. The journey is rooted in the words that we will hear in a few moments when ashes are placed on us: "Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel." It is the message of Christ himself: turn away from darkness, evil and death and begin walking towards light, goodness and life. She embarks upon this journey by undertaking those spiritual exercises described by our Lord in the Gospel today: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
This year our Lenten observance begins with a special meaning. Our Holy Father has asked us today to mark this day as one "of prayer and fasting for the cause of peace, especially in the Middle East." Indeed, my brothers and sisters, fasting is not just a denial of self, for the sake of denial; it is not leaving something out of our mouth for this one day. Rather, as His Holiness said last Sunday during the Angelus message, "with fasting … the Christian prepares to follow Christ … and through it is able to understand better the difficulties and suffering of so many of our brothers and sisters, oppressed by hunger, misery and war." In other words, through fasting we become one with those who are hungry, without homes and living without the basic necessities of life, conditions certainly caused by war.
2. In fact, my brothers and sisters, this is the root of the Church's call to peace in this moment of such apprehension over the danger of war. War "always leads to mourning and grave consequences for everyone." The Church announces that peace is always possible, because of her deep concern for those who will suffer as a result of armed conflict. So we begin this Lent with the firm conviction that "peace is in fact a gift of God that we must invoke with humble and insistent trust." As Christians, we are called to be "sentinels of peace in the places in which we live and work."
3. For his part, the Holy Father has worked untiringly for peace. He has not spared any effort in these last weeks to use every means available to him to ask those entrusted with the highest political authority "to make just decisions in order to resolve with adequate and pacific means the strife that hinders mankind on its journey in our times." He and his closest collaborators have received numerous leaders in the Vatican reminding them of the noble cause that is theirs when they build a world of peace. He sent a Special Envoy to the President of Iraq, and today he has sent me to the President of the United States.
4. For the Holy See, that is for the Catholic Church, peace is built on four pillars: truth, justice, love and freedom. The Church's solicitude for peace has been a constant one and that is why she never tires in her work for the cause of peace. She believes that peace can always be constructed even in the darkest moments. She believes in the power of the human mind and courage of the human heart to find peaceful solutions to disagreements, using the vast and rich patrimony of international law and institutions created for that very purpose. Oh, yes, they may be incomplete; they may act too slowly at times; they may not have yet even caught up with realities of our times that threaten world order. But they are based on principles that are true and relative for all times: honest and patient dialogue between and among disagreeing parties and the absolute duty of each member of the family of Nations to comply fully with all its obligations. That is why she believes that war is a defeat for humanity; that is, it is a defeat for our intelligence, our creativity and our firm conviction that peace is always possible.
5. In a few moments, ashes will be placed on our heads. They will remind us of our fragility and of our finiteness. They will remind us where we came from. They will remind us to where we shall return. We know that in our human imperfection we may always live under the threat of war, but we also know that united to "Christ, our peace" (Eph. 2: 14) we can safeguard and preserve that same precious gift of peace (GS, 78, 6).