With Ash Wednesday, we have begun once again our Lenten journey of renewal. These forty days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving prepare us for Easter Sunday when we will renew our Baptismal Promises to renounce sin and to live as God’s children. This year I journey with you as your new shepherd, the fourth bishop of this beautiful and vibrant local Church. In the year and a half since I arrived to the Diocese of Orlando, I have had the occasion to visit each one of our parishes –at least once- and I have met many of you. And although today I cannot greet each one of you personally, I hope that you will recognize in my voice the voice of your shepherd. Despite my unworthiness, Christ has placed me over this flock of more than a half of million Catholics that extends over 11,000 square miles into nine counties of Central Florida. Today I appeal to you, my dear Catholic people, to join with me through your gifts of time, talent and treasure in bringing to our families, our friends and our neighbors the good news of our Reconciliation in God through Our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection.
On this first Sunday of Lent, the Scriptures speak of temptations and their consequences. Adam and Eve give in and their sin alienates them and their children from God. The Book of Genesis speaks in highly figurative language – a language that is difficult for many of us to grasp today. However, it is important to understand what their temptation was – it was to become like God – but on their terms not on his. That original sin has wounded us all – for we still want to think of ourselves as gods – and we think that we can makes ourselves into gods on our terms. Those terms define the way temptations come to us.
Jesus who is God also shares in our human nature – he too is tempted but does not sin. He refuses to accept the terms defined by the Adversary.– his way to God, and through Him, our way, is not through seeking power, or pleasure, or riches but through obedience of God’s will. In Christ, we can become Godlike – but it is always on his terms not ours.
These forty days of Lent are designed to put us back on good terms with God by leading us to repent for the times that we have sought to impose our terms on him or on others.
Lent is a time for a more intense practice of prayer – perhaps by daily Mass, or by rediscovering traditional devotions such as the rosary or Stations of the Cross. Prayer helps turn us away from the temptation to power, to control, to self-sufficiency. In prayer, we let go, so we can let God…
Lent is a time for self denial and fasting. Before we can say yes to God or to a neighbor in need, we have to be able to say no to ourselves. Fasting turns us away from the temptation to pursue pleasure for its own sake.
And Lent is a time for almsgiving. Scriptures say that charity covers over a multitude of sins. In helping the needy, we imitate the mercy of God that we hope will be showered on us. Not the rule of gold but the golden rule will win God’s mercy on us.
It is a happy coincidence that I make this appeal to you on this the First Sunday of Lent. And this is not really my appeal, it is yours as well: it is Our Catholic Appeal. Each year through Our Catholic Appeal, we are able to more effectively witness to the presence of God’s Kingdom is our midst. Our Catholic Appeal supports our attempt to be a community of Faith, of Hope, and of Charity here in Central Florida.
Our Catholic Appeal helps us become a community of Faith where people can encounter the Living Christ who calls us to Conversion: We prepared and welcomed 1000 new Catholics last Easter. We help train 4,000 teachers, directors of religious education and catechists so we may educate forty thousand students in the richness of our Catholic faith both in our schools and our religious education programs. Through Our Catholic Appeal, we support parishes by training our pastoral ministers who provide theological formation for those who serve in other ministries.
The TV Mass for Shut Ins, supported by Our Catholic Appeal allows thousands of home bound to participate vicariously in the Holy Sacrifice and gives countless thousands more their first experience of Catholic worship. Buena Nueva FM, our radio ministry to our Hispanic community, can now be heard in all parts of our Diocese on 104.1 subcarrier. Our Catholic Campus Ministry brings the word of God to thousands of young adults each week.
Our Catholic Appeal helps us become a community of Hope where people can encounter the Living Christ who calls us to Communion: Through Our Catholic Appeal, we support parishes with liturgical formation and worship resources so that in each parish our Catholics may experience the Mass as the source and summit of their Christian lives. Through Our Catholic Appeal, we support the formation of our future priests and deacons who serve us at the altar when we gather to celebrate the Sacraments, the source of our hope in God’s promised glory. Sixteen men are preparing to become priests. Last year, six men received the sacrament of Holy Orders, two men were ordained as transitional deacons, and 10 men were ordained as deacons to assist in our parishes.
Our Catholic Appeal helps us become a community of Love where people can encounter the Live Christ who calls us to Solidarity: Through Our Catholic Appeal, we helped build 200 new homes for families in our sister diocese in the Dominican Republic. We provide medical assistance to more than 10,000 needy people each year and we help build a better future for our brothers and sisters there by supporting teaching training classes and adult literacy.
Through Our Catholic Appeal, we helped refugees find new lives in our communities. We helped more than 2,000 immigrants with legal questions and other services. We provided job services and educational assistance to other newcomers and we have supported farm workers as they work to provide for themselves and their families with dignity and justice.
Our Catholic Charities provided counseling to more than 1400 new families last year. Through its food banks more than four million pounds of food were distributed to needy families. More than 17,000 families received assistance for household needs. Our Catholic Appeal supports prison ministry and abstinence training for at-risk youth. We reach out to the special adults who are residents of Bishop Grady Villas. The Respect Life Office with its various ministries affirms the value of human life from conception to natural death. All this – and much more – is made possible in great part thanks to your generous support of Our Catholic Appeal. To help safeguard our vulnerable populations, child safety programs are offered in all our parishes and forty-eight thousand employees, clergy, religious and volunteers have been fingerprinted through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement or the FBI.
One of the central teachings of the Second Vatican Council is that man can only realize himself through the sincere gift of himself. In a culture increasingly marked by consumerism, materialism and radical individualism, Lent with its call to prayer, fasting and almsgiving reminds us that “we realized ourselves” – in the words of the Council Fathers –, not through self seeking but through self giving. Lent calls us to imitate Christ as we seek to be good stewards of the many gifts he has given us.
In the Church, we enter into the mystery of the life of the Most Holy Trinity, the communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in mutual and reciprocal self-giving. As members of Christ’s Body, we are called to share in that life – through the mystery of the Cross. We join ourselves to Christ and his sacrificial gift of his life through the sincere gift of ourselves to God and to our neighbor.
This is stewardship lived from within the heart of God – a stewardship in which each one brings his gifts – and at the same time is gifted. In the communion which is the Church, there is no one who is so rich that he cannot receive; nor is there anyone so poor that he does not have something to give.
Our Catholic Appeal is part of our commitment to stewardship. On this First Sunday of Lent, I as your new shepherd appeal to you to pray – for in prayer we seek God’s power and abandon our own search for power. I appeal to you to fast – keep the appointed days of fast and abstinence, but also seek through self-denial the freedom to say no to sin and selfishness. And, please see in Our Catholic Appeal an opportunity for almsgiving by pledging a truly sacrificial gift.
For our ministries, our people, our future, please be generous. May your gift come from your heart and be based on love.