WASHINGTON (January 29, 2004) -- In his annual Lenten message, Pope John Paul II expressed the hope that this Lent may "be a time of ever greater concern for the needs of children…for they are the future of humanity."
"The evocative rite of the imposition of ashes marks the beginning of the holy season of Lent, when the liturgy once more calls the faithful to radical conversion and trust in God's mercy," he said.
This year's theme, "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me," (Mt 18:5) invites reflection on the condition of children, the Pope said.
The penitential season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, February 25 this year. The Holy Father's message for Lent 2004 was released at the Vatican and in this country by Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States.
"Jesus had a particular love of children because of 'their simplicity, their joy of life, their spontaneity, and their faith filled with wonder,'" the Holy Father wrote. "Alongside children Jesus sets the 'very least of the brethren:' the suffering, the needy, the hungry and thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. In welcoming them and loving them, or in treating them with indifference and contempt, we show our attitude towards him, for it is in them that he is particularly present."
"To become one of the least and 'to receive' the little ones: these are two aspects of a single teaching which the Lord repeats to his disciples in our time. Only the one who makes himself one of the 'least' is able to receive with love the 'least' of our brothers and sisters," the Pope said.
Saying that many believers strive faithfully to follow these teachings of the Lord, the Pope praised parents "who make every effort to pass on to their children those human and religious values that give true meaning to life." He expressed admiration for "all those committed to caring for underprivileged children and those who alleviate the sufferings of children and their families resulting from war and violence, inadequate food and water, forced immigration and the many forms of injustice present in the world."
But something must also be said about the selfishness of those who do not "receive" children, the Holy Father continued.
"There are young people who have been profoundly hurt by the violence of adults: sexual abuse, forced prostitution, involvement in the sale and use of drugs; children forced to work or enlisted for combat; young children scarred forever by the breakup of the family; little ones caught up in the obscene trafficking of organs and persons. What too of the tragedy of AIDS and its devastating consequences in Africa,"? the Holy Father asked. "It is said that millions of persons are now afflicted by this scourge, many of whom were infected from birth. Humanity cannot close its eyes in the face of so appalling a tragedy," the Pope declared.
"What evil have these children done to merit such suffering,"? he asked. "From a human standpoint it is not easy, indeed it may be impossible, to answer this disturbing question. Only faith can make us begin to understand so profound an abyss of suffering. By becoming 'obedient unto death, even death on a Cross' (Phil 2:8), Jesus took human suffering upon himself and illuminated it with the radiant light of his resurrection. By his death, he conquered death once for all," the Holy Father wrote.
"During Lent, we prepare to relive the Paschal Mystery, which sheds the light of hope upon the whole of our existence, even its most complex and painful aspects. Holy Week will again set before us this mystery of salvation in the suggestive rites of the Easter Triduum."
"Dear Brothers and Sisters, let us set out with trust on our Lenten journey, sustained by fervent prayer, penance and concern for those in need," the Pope urged. "In particular, may this Lent be a time of ever greater concern for the needs of children, in our own families and in society as a whole: for they are the future of humanity."