20 Feb February 2023 Reflection – Michael McFarland SJ


Lent and Repentance


Lent begins with a call to repentance. The first reading on Ash Wednesday starts this way:

Even now, says the Lord,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the Lord, your God.

The ashes we receive that day are an acknowledgement of our sinfulness, which has alienated us from God and from one another, out of a desire to be reconciled, to “return to the Lord.” This is not meant to demean or punish us. Rather it is an invitation to face honestly the reality of who we are and the burdens we carry so that we can be set free from the destructive habits, tendencies and structures we have created for ourselves. Without repentance our situation is similar to a family that has a serious problem it is not able to face, such as an addiction, abuse, infidelity, conflict or some other disfunction. The problem does not go away but looms over them, sapping their energy, creating divisions and distrust and taking all the joy and love out of their lives. In the same way, when we don’t face up to our sinfulness, it controls our lives, alienating us from ourselves and from God. Repentance, then, is a gift that frees us and lives in the joy and peace of God’s children.  As Pope Francis said in a Lenten homily in 2019, “Lent is for rediscovering that we are created for the inextinguishable flame, not for ashes that immediately disappear; … for the freedom of the children of God, not for slavery to things.”

As the prophets often pointed out, the need for repentance is as great for nations and peoples as it is for individuals. Sadly, it is true of the Church as well. For example, at a recent synodal gathering, Julieann Moran and Fr. Eamon Fitzgibbon spoke about what they learned from listening to Irish Catholics as part of the synodal process, as reported in the Tablet (2.13.23):

“This new social reality [of sectarianism and social conflict], together with the painful legacy of clerical and institutional abuse and involvement of Church bodies in the harsh institutionalisation of women and children, have had a profound effect on the Church in Ireland,” they said.  Highlighting the anger, sadness, sense of loss – including, in some cases, a loss of faith – which has been felt most acutely by those who were abused, they said it was also felt by the lay faithful, by priests, bishops, religious. They said it was felt both by those who have remained, and by those who left because they no longer hear the Good News in a Church “that failed so many”. 

We have suffered the devastating effects of these failures in our own church, as have many others throughout the world. That is why the efforts of Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ, the President of the Institute for Anthropology (IADC) at the Gregorian University to confront the Church’s history of abuse and cover-ups and to create programs to protect the vulnerable is so important for all of us. We are proud to be able to support his work with a variety of donations, including a recent $1 million grant from the Conrad Hilton Foundation. Marginalization of the voices of women, especially in our leadership, is another serious problem the Church has yet to face fully. The Gregorian, if rather belatedly, is doing more to train women, both lay and vowed religious, to move into leadership positions in the Vatican, in dioceses, in ecclesial courts and in seminaries, where their talent, wisdom and experience are badly needed. We have been raising scholarship funds to support many of these women, since they often lack the diocesan sponsorship that priests and seminarians have. And to counter the religious divisions that have seriously undermined the Gospel message, the Gregorian has begun several new programs in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. In particular we are beginning a fundraising effort for a new chair in Rabbinic Studies in the Cardinal Bea Centre at the Gregorian and the Biblical Institute, which will explore the Jewish roots of our shared traditions in Scripture and theology and help counter the antisemitism that has darkened the Church’s spirit and practice for centuries.

Repentance means renewal. In the spirit of Lent, we are grateful to be part of God’s call to renewal, of ourselves and of our beloved Church.

Michael C McFarland, SJ
President, Gregorian University Foundation