• The sacred season of penance begins

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    To the 80 percent of our population—the 80 million who are baptized Catholics (and Aglipayans and High Church Anglicans and Episcopalians)—today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

    We go to Mass and before or after the Holy Eucharist we present ourselves to the priest to be marked with ashes moistened with chrism (blessed holy oil). The more zealous priest makes the mark, not just a thumb-size black dot or a smudge, but one in the shape of a cross. When he applies it on our foreheads, he says a humbling reminder: “Remember, Man is dust and to dust you shall return.”

    Lent is a season of penance. It is also a season of recollection and reflection. How can we do penance if we have not thought in depth about the state of our moral and spiritual health? It is also a season for fasting, and making ourselves die in little ways, mortifications (imitations of death)—by sacrificing our egos and love of comfort, our appetites and accustomed routines. By having these little deaths we do a bit of what Jesus Our Lord did, die on the cross out of love for us.

    All these contemplation, prayer and fasting should prepare us for Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday. It was his death and resurrection that won our redemption.

    The ashes remind us of the ancient tradition, inherited by Christians from their Jewish elder brothers, to do penance in hairshirts or sackcloth—suffering itchiness and discomfort—and rolling in ashes or at least sitting on ashes.

    The collegial body of the Philippine Catholic bishops, the CBCP released on Monday an apostolic exhortation that, aside from reminding the Catholic faithful to renew themselves during Lent, also invited them to help reform society.

    The bishops condemned poverty as a “social scandal” that “degrades and dehumanizes humanity,” and exhorted the lay faithful to shun the “economy of exclusion” by living simply and in solidarity with the less fortunate.

    The pastoral statement called on the laity to fight “degrading and dehumanizing” poverty by detaching themselves from worldly riches and living a simple lifestyle.

    “This Lenten season, Christ invites all, but especially the laity, to oppose degrading and dehumanizing poverty and to embrace humanizing and sanctifying poverty. In other words, He invites us to imitate His example,” the CBCP said in its statement issued on behalf of all bishops by the CBCP president, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbisop Socrates Villegas.

    “We are invited to practice material poverty by taking up a simple lifestyle and works of mercy and justice that attend to the poor and aim for an economy of inclusion,” the statement written by Villegas said.

    Reminding the lay faithful that Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day religious tradition of Christians where they observe a period of fasting and spiritual discipline as a means to sacrifice and repent for their sins, the pastoral letter said:

    “We are to exercise moral poverty by strengthening our resolve to practice solidarity with the neglected and to denounce injustice and all forms of radical inequality.”

    Archbishop Villegas also denounced consumerism, together with material, moral and spiritual destitution, noting that these practices “undermine and threaten (human) existence.”

    “On the level of a global ethos, the scandal of material poverty shows itself in the ever-growing influence of consumerism… In the end, such poverty leads to a self-inflicted emptiness,” he said.

    Material destitution, which according to the bishops is tantamount to one’s exclusion from the basic needs of life, remains as an “unacceptable scandal” that has to be resolved.

    The CBCP emphasized that the “appalling” Philippine poverty rate is aggravated by the exclusion of many Filipinos from gainful livelihood, sufficient shelter, rural development, adequate health care, quality education, and sustainable environment.

    The prelates also lambasted moral destitution as manifested by slavery to vice or sin, corruption, and inequality, urging the faithful to “seek the truth and restore integrity.”

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