Lent, a Way to Freedom?

Do you like Lent? Well, I don’t. At least not spontaneously. Having to listen to talks about conversion, penance, fasting, questioning my lifestyle, material sharing, and with all that purple in the liturgy, so sad, for 40 days. It doesn’t really appeal to me, and I could do without it.

However, if I pause and reflect momentarily, I will be forced to admit that I need it. We’ve made the most of the festive season, we’re back to the routine of ordinary time (which, we’re told, must be lived “in an extraordinary way”!), and the little routines have started to fall back into place, with the ever-present risk of mediocrity and lack of creativity.

So, let’s move on. Let’s get going! We’ve been hearing more lately about the journey ahead. Pope Francis, for example, in his Lenten letter this year, speaks of crossing the desert and of freedom. Recently, in his invitation to us to prepare for the Jubilee Year of 2025, the theme he proposed is: “Pilgrims in Hope”. So, we need to keep moving, like pilgrims on a journey. Interspersed throughout all this is the synodal journey we started many months ago, between two celebrations, and we’re still on the move. It’s not easy to establish yourself when you’re a Christian or a missionary in our Catholic Church. Here, I’ll focus on the first two propositions.

God leads us to freedom through the desert

This is the title of Pope Francis’ Lenten letter. It begins with a quotation from Exodus (20:2): “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”. The project is clear: our Lent is presented as a time of desert and freedom. The Pope adds: “When our God reveals himself, he communicates freedom”. From the outset, he insists on what prevents us from freeing ourselves: our attachment to slavery. In the desert, God educates his people and vigorously calls them to freedom; this was the long journey during the Exodus when the people were resistant on several occasions. 

Today, however, we too are attached to constraining bonds which we must abandon and which are often the consequence of a lack of hope. We know the desert is a place of temptation and divine seduction (Hosea 2:16-17). Lent is the season of grace in which the desert becomes once more the place of our first love, where the Lord reminds us of the very thing that once set us on this journey: that unforgettable encounter with his son. Where is your treasure?

To be concrete,” says the Pope, “we must break free from Pharaoh’s domination. He reminds us of the questions raised in Lampedusa about migrants: “Where are you?” (Gn 3:9) and “Where is your brother?” (Gn 4:9). He denounces the culture of indifference.

First, we must recognise that we live in a model of growth that divides and robs us of a future, polluting creation and our souls. Do I want a new world? Am I ready to free myself of my compromises? Our lack of hope is an obstacle to our dreams, a regret for slavery that paralyses. He believes this is why we cannot overcome global inequalities and conflicts. 

We must look our idols in the face, our desire to be recognised, valued, and dominate others. We become attached to idols like money, our projects, our ideas, our goals, our position, our traditions and sometimes certain people. And in the end, this sets us against each other. Fortunately, there are the poor in spirit who are open and ready to move forward, “a silent force of good that heals and sustains the world”- those who, like the God of Moses, see and hear the cries of people in bondage.

Lent is a time to act; in this special season, to act also means to pause, to pause in prayer to receive the word of God, to pause in action, like the Samaritan in the presence of a wounded brother: love of God and love of neighbour are inseparable.

Here again, the Pope challenges us. Since we’re on a synodal path, Lent should be a time for communitarian decisions, of decisions, small and large, that are countercurrent, capable of altering the daily lives of individuals and entire neighbourhoods. He even speaks of questioning our lifestyles: our buying habits, care for creation, and inclusion of the unnoticed and despised. He invites every community to re-examine its priorities. And as if by chance, I discovered his letter after reading the latest letter from our General Council (on the state of our finances), questioning our priorities and lifestyle.

To the extent that this Lent becomes a time of conversion, a stranded humanity will experience a burst of creativity: the dawn of a new hope. Here, the Pope reiterates his appeal to the young people during the World Youth Day in Lisbon in August 2023: “Keep seeking and be ready to take risks. At this moment in time, the challenges are enormous, the groans painful. We are experiencing a third World War fought piecemeal”. But, he adds, don’t live this time as an agony, but as a birth process.

Pilgrims of hope

This is the theme chosen by the Pope for the Jubilee Year 2025, strongly emphasising reconciliation. We just heard him tell us that our discouragement often stems from a lack of hope. Elsewhere, he even speaks of the weariness of hope, referring to people, particularly consecrated people, who no longer understand why they are so exhausted in a world of rapid change.

What can we retain from this jubilee theme for our Lenten journey?

This jubilee is also part of the synodal process.

Indeed, it’s all about pilgrimages and journeys. For Pope Francis, a Christian is a pilgrim who walks with others, searching for God’s will.

A pilgrimage is a journey, a people on the move. A Christian – let alone a consecrated person – does not establish himself in the comfort of the world. Jesus gave us the example of an itinerant life. He had no fixed abode, sometimes residing in the house of Simon and Andrew in Capernaum. The rest of the time, he travelled through villages and towns to proclaim the Good News.

What’s more, Jesus always respected the Jewish tradition of going on pilgrimage. As a child, at Passover, he went on a pilgrimage with his parents from Galilee to the temple in Jerusalem. The Gospel recounts how, at the age of 12, he remained in the temple while his parents were already on their way home. He stayed to deepen his understanding of his heavenly Father. This shows us that Jesus was not only looking for men and women but also looking for God, regularly taking time out to spend one-on-one time with his Father to be inspired about his mission.

One useful question we can ask ourselves as missionaries: do I see my life here on earth as a pilgrimage? For example, the life pilgrimage from birth to death. Or the journey of my faith and my commitment as a missionary, where from the beginning of my formation, from one stage to the next, I draw closer to the Lord and seek to belong to him fully. Or the pilgrimage of my apostolate takes me out of the comfort of my presbytery or house of formation to constantly set out to meet the people entrusted to my care. Speaking of synodality, Pope Francis says the encounter is “a time to turn towards the other person’s face and words, to meet them face to face, to allow ourselves to be touched by the questions of the sisters and brothers, to help each other so that the diversity of charisms, vocations and ministries may enrich us. As we all know, every encounter requires openness, courage and a willingness to let ourselves be challenged by the other’s face and story” (Homily, October 10, 2021, Vatican City).

In the dynamic of synodality, pilgrimage cannot be separated from encounter and thus becomes a path of hope and peace. The Lenten journey is a journey of liberation.

We are all invited to be pilgrims of hope during this Lenten season.

Pope Francis has often spoken of hope, urging us to look afresh at our existence, especially now that it is being subjected to the many trials of our world, and to look at it with the eyes of Jesus, “the author of hope”. He helps us overcome these difficult days, “confident that the darkness will be transformed into light “.

Indeed, it seems to me that when we have so many reasons to be pessimistic and so few signs of hope around us, it is in the certainty that the Lord accompanies us and will have the last word that we draw the strength and courage to continue to commit ourselves to our apostolates. Hope is a way of looking at reality with different eyes. This is what the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven in the dough tell us. Suppose we limit ourselves to media information, watching the news on TV or our smartphones, for example, these days. In that case, we are struck by the accumulation of ruins in the Holy Land, in Gaza, in Ukraine and in all the wars that continue in Africa. But if we consider in faith all the gestures of love, solidarity and sharing among our brothers and sisters, especially the poor, the efforts of Christians and consecrated persons to fight for greater justice and peace, and the confidence of all those young people in formation in our congregations who believe that a better future is possible, then our hope is nourished.

It’s up to us…

Whether we choose the image of the Exodus through the desert to free ourselves from slavery or that of the pilgrim of hope who, wherever he goes, shows people how much God loves them, the question for us at the start of Lent is: “Without getting dispersed in a flood of good but utopian resolutions that I won’t keep, is there any area of my life that I feel is a place of stagnation, fatigue, rumination, diminishing hope and the quality of my love?”. Pope Francis said that to act in Lent is also to pause. So, whether it’s a personal commitment or a community recollection (where we’re not afraid to talk frankly about the latest letter from the General Council), we must set ourselves a realistic and generous goal if we don’t want to be surprised on Palm Sunday morning when we exclaim: “Ah, is it Holy Week already?”.

Happy and fruitful Lent to all….

By: Bernard Ugeux (M.Afr.)

Pictures of the way of the Cross at St Francis Parish, Lilongwe, Malawi (2022)

A meditation with the image of Our Lady of Africa

Some elements of Marian missionary spirituality from a meditation with the image of Our Lady of Africa

This is a personal meditation with the image of Our Lady of Africa. I have learned to meditate with images (icons) with Eastern Christians in Egypt, Slovenia and with a Serbian Orthodox friend. I invite everyone to look at the image and to be touched by the details. One can make a whole spiritual retreat with the image of Our Lady of Africa. I am only giving you a summary of my meditation because of the limitations of the article.

Presence in the world

A statue of Our Lady of Africa stands above the basilica. This is the first mission of God: to be present to people through his incarnation. It is an act of love. Mission is above all a loving presence. This image of Our Lady of Africa expresses a silent presence.

A shining light

The image shines with a sunlight-like color. The crown and the skin of Mary have the same color. It is a color that seems to be a mixture of all colors. It is humanity of all races, languages, peoples, nations united and carried by Mary. It is humanity illuminated by the divine presence.

The Crown

The crown is a symbol of sovereignty. Mary is queen because her son is king. The tip of the crown is the cross, symbol of Christ. The cross supplants a globe. Christ is the King of the universe. Therefore, his mother, Mary, is also Queen of the Universe. The closed crown of Mary (a circle with arches attached to it that meet at the top) with a globe is an imperial symbol: Mary’s sovereignty is complete. Seven half-arches with fleur-de-lis can be seen: this is the purity of the Virgin Mary. It is the answer of the one who is conceived without sin (Immaculate Conception) to the 7 capital sins, it is victory over sin.

The veil

Mary’s veil appears as rays coming out of the crown and pouring over the mantle. It is a very thin veil that does not hide the hair. The veil of Our Lady of Africa is the divine graces. These graces come from her Son and are poured over Mary’s whole body. She is full of grace. The thinness of the veil shows an intimacy with her Son. Our Lady of Africa is not concerned with hiding her femininity with a veil. Rather, the veil becomes a symbol of union with God.

The hair

Hair is a sign of femininity, and of beauty. The veil does not hide the hair. Mary’s hair reminds us that she is a woman, feminine. I think of the holy women of the Gospel who expressed much love for Jesus. I also think of the women whose femininity is abused and exploited. We pray for them and commit ourselves to act against this abuse.

Looking down

Mary looks down on humanity.  She looks with love at those who pass by. She intercedes so that they may always be blessed. This is what it means to be a missionary. Her eyes are slightly closed. She is an inner woman. It is from within, from intimacy with God, that she receives her life and her mission. Her head tilted to the right is also reminiscent of her son on the cross, the supreme sacrifice of love and redemption of humanity. She was present. Her gaze exudes humility, simplicity and interiority.

The mantle

Mary’s mantle is abundant. Mary is full of grace and grace overflows. The mantle is blue with white stripes and gold motifs. The blue in the iconography symbolises wisdom and refers to incarnateWisdom, the Word, the Son of God. It is the presence of the Son in her, it is life in abundance. This overflowing life is experienced at the wedding in Cana. Blue is also heaven, holiness. From this blue emerges depth and calm. White is the colour of divinity, the divine presence. The scattered golden motifs represent the Holy Spirit blowing.  The mantle is in the form of a chasuble, a sign of the priestly function of sanctifying.  Mary gives the impression of celebrating the Eucharistic sacrifice. The white band in the middle of the robe resembles a stole, the symbol par excellence of the priesthood. Mary sanctifies the people as “priest and intercessor.” The mantle covers Mary’s body. This is evocative of the Assumption. Mary’s body has not known corruption. It is raised to heaven.

The arms

The open arms are the presence that welcomes everyone without distinction, without discrimination. They are arms that invite us to enter into intimacy with Jesus through Mary who wants to embrace us like a mother.  The open and lowered arms are a presence without weapons, without violence, without protection, a vulnerable presence that offers only what it holds dearest: Jesus Christ. Her open hands show humility, purity, simplicity in a world that clings to power and wealth. She has the attitude of the gentle, the non-violent, the one who is incapable of doing harm. It is also the arms that offer. Mary’s fingers are separated.  She holds nothing back. She keeps nothing. She gives everything.

Moussa Serge Traore

Stations of creation

Stations of creation

Way of the cross, organised by “Via Aurelia Pilgrims”

Since the Season of Creation (2021), several neighbouring religious communities of the Via Aurelia have been walking together in the spirit of the synod.

Our group “Pilgrims of the Via Aurelia”, composed of the Marist Sisters, the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Missionaries of Africa, organized a Way of the Cross under the theme of Laudato Si.

On Friday, April 8, about a hundred people from the congregations that live in the neighbourhood, or who joined from other parts of Rome, participated in the prayer of the 7 Stations of Creation. Four vessels signifying the 4 elements: Wind, Fire, Water, Earth accompanied us on our way to the cross.

The photos give you a glimpse of our lived experience. You can also download the prayer of the stations of creation.

We wish you a good journey towards Easter!

JPIC-ED Prayer Book

Following the suggestion of several confreres, we have prepared a new JPIC-RD prayer booklet, entitled “Prayer for our Common Home”.

For the feast of Our Lady of Africa, you will find the prayer N°13, and for May 8, memory of the blessed martyrs of Algeria, the prayer N°12.

Andreas G
Coordinator JPIC ED

Practical advise for the production of this A6 booklet:

    1. Download the PDF document
    2. Print the 4 pages recto-verso (turn on the long edge)
    3. Cut the pages in half to make 4 A5 pages
    4. Fold the A5 pages in two and compose the booklet according to pagination 1 to 16
    5. Staple on the fold.

Et voilà

Homily of Bp. Claude Rault on 8th May

Homily of Bp. Claude Rault on 8th May

Happy Feast of the Blessed Martyrs of Algeria. The fortunate ones in rue Friant in Paris were treated to a homily by our confrere, Bishop Claude Rault, who knew all the martyrs personally. Here is his homily.

It so happens that, through the mystery of history, I have come to know almost all the members of the Church of Algeria whose memory we celebrate today. Some I have known more, others less.

On several occasions I was able to work with Bishop Pierre in the Episcopal Conference, and he came several times to the Diocese of the Sahara when I was Vicar General. He was a passionate and exciting man. His regular letters during the “black decade” soon made him a potential target for armed Islamists and security forces. He knew the risks he was taking.

I was also quite close to Christian Chessel, Jean Chevillard, Alain Dieulangard and a little less Charlie Deckers.

Well known also in Ribât, the Link of Peace, Brother Henri Vergès (one of the first victims), less Sister Paule Hélène who worked with him.

Sr Odette came regularly to the same spiritual sharing group. I would sometimes go to celebrate the Eucharist at their little fraternity in a working class setting.

Since the beginning of the 1970s, I had been attending the monastery of Tibhirine and had developed a rather strong bond with Bro Christian, the future Prior. Brother Luc, a colourful doctor, had treated me on several occasions.

Srs. Angèle-Marie and Bibiane were almost unknown to me.

Once or twice I had met Sr. Esther who was treating a friend of mine in a hospital in Algiers where she worked. And a little did I know her sister from the Caridad community.

I am not going to retrace their journey, but I will rather tell you how I was able to witness their journey towards beatification.

From the beginning, when Archbishop Henri Teissier had the investigations for a possible beatification made, I was among several “resistants” to this procedure. I was then provincial of the Maghreb. At the time when our companions from Tizi were murdered at the end of December 94, some other confreres White Fathers, especially in Central Africa, had paid with their lives for their attachment to Christ and to the country in which they had chosen to stay. In fact they had suffered the same fate. So why could our Brothers in Tizi Ouzou have been distinguished from them?

Besides… I had known them well enough to realise that they were not heroes! Their community life was not a great river of peace. And then, in itself, the personality of each one was not really extraordinary in terms of character and behaviour. Pierre Claverie, brilliant as he was, had his temper tantrums, Brother Christian de Chergé his contractions, our confreres in Tizi Ouzou their personal and community problems… like you and me! And sometimes the monks even more… ! There, I have played the devil’s advocate!

As the investigation progressed, we could see that, deep down, it was not their “exemplarity” that was at stake but the meaning of a Church committed in the midst of a People.

This was reflected in the gift of their lives in connection with Muslim men and women who had given the gift of theirs out of fidelity to God and fidelity to their people. The members of the Church of Algeria had given theirs in the line of the same fidelity.

Once the survey was completed, the risk was that each Congregation would present its “candidates” for Beatification in separate ranks. The White Fathers were reluctant to do so. And little by little the vision of a united Church emerged, recognising itself in these given lives and desiring to see them “beatified” not within this or that religious family but as part of the Church, the Body of Christ, which had decided to remain within this suffering people, out of solidarity with them.

“It is not because my wife has lost her mind that I am going to leave her! “replied a Little Brother of Jesus to a journalist.

And little by little the “cause” was advancing. The signing of the Beatification by the Pope was imminent. Where could it take place? We could not see how it could be anywhere else but Algeria! So we bishops met in the office of the Minister of Religious Affairs.

We wanted to involve the many victims of this civil war, starting with the 113 Imams who gave their lives in the name of their faith in God who refuses violence. And it was possible to do so, they were recognized as the spiritual heritage of the humanity of this people.

These reflections have taught me a lot about holiness.

Those we celebrate are blessed neither because of their heroism nor because of their perfection. Heroism is of the human order, and perfection belongs to God alone.

Holiness is of another order, it is a gift of the Holy God. It is a gift that God gives to all of us, and it is up to us whether we accept it or not. It takes place within our hearts.

Those who are declared holy or blessed are declared as a foretaste of what we can be… with God’s grace.

To be officially declared “blessed” or “holy” by the Church is an appreciation that comes from her. We know that on this point she can be mistaken…

These men and women have finished their race. They were like us human beings. In the name of Love they risked to go to the end of this Love.

It is within our reach, as it is within the reach of anyone.

The Love of the Father accompanied them to the end of their journey, He was faithful to them. Dressed in white robes, they mysteriously let themselves be attracted by this Love of God that has no limits.

They gave their lives for those they loved as did many other anonymous people, known only to God.

Basically, the essential thing is to let oneself be attracted by this Love. And this is within the reach of all of us. To be inscribed on the list of the Blessed belongs to men. To be inscribed in the Book of Life belongs only to God. But we must wish it to each other.

+Claude Rault. M.Afr.