The Sprirt takes us out into the desert (Pastoral Letter, Lenten 2006)

His Excellency Msgr. Mario Grech Bishop of Gozo
Lenten Pastoral Letter 2006

The Spirit takes us out into the desert

My dear brothers and sisters,

I am going to share with you the inspirations I have from today’s gospel. My hope is that they will assist you to appreciate this Lenten season offered to us in preparation for Easter.

My heart rejoices when I hear the words “the spirit took Jesus” … I realize that it is the spirit that moved Jesus. And it is the same Spirit that moves you and me. Just as the Spirit lead Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, it is the Spirit of God that, in a providential manner, ‘takes us out’ at the beginning of our ministry amongst you. This experience of the Spirit of God gives us the opportunity and grace to live fully this new era in the life of the church in Gozo. I strongly believe that it has to be the Spirit of God who takes us out of ourselves to the various ways in which we can experience ourselves as Church.

I am convinced that this Spirit of God, which rested on me and consecrated me, a few weeks ago, moved me to visit the various communities in the parishes of our diocese. During these friendly visits the Spirit of God is bringing me in contact with the church of Christ in Gozo. I appreciate very much how this Spirit is working in you and how it leaves its visible mark on the life of Gozitans.

During these visits I have witnessed dedicated priests ready and willing to give their all to serve the People of God; I have seen religious and lay consecrated people living close to the people in prayer and in simplicity of life; I have encountered all kinds of people involved wholeheartedly in church activities such as catechists and other pastoral workers. In all this I enjoyed the smiling faces and eyes that light up with hope. Lots of families opened not only their homes, but also their hearts to me. The young people serving in various capacities enthusiastically welcomed me in their midst. The children enlightened me with their innocence and purity of heart.

I found the same signs of the presence of the Spirit of God in the institutes and organizations I visited such as the local councils, the band and football clubs, schools and so on. These carry the Christian identity by inviting and letting the Spirit of God to lead them in their mission. I continually thank God for such a rich experience.

The Christian’s intimacy with God

In today’s gospel St. Mark tells us that “the spirit took Jesus out to the desert”. Scripturally the desert is the place where God reveals Himself to people thereby renewing the Covenant of Love with them. In the desert God calls people unto himself as he did of old with Israel when He declared, “I will draw her and take her out to the desert and speak to her heart. … I will espouse her for ever with me, I will espouse her in truth and justice, in love and mercy, with the bond of fidelity I will espouse her and she will know the Lord.” (Hos. 2, 16 – 22).

I imagine that Jesus’ desert experience, while strengthening his bond with the Father; it enhanced the beauty of his mission as God’s Son. Right at the beginning of his ministry, the desert journey must have motivated him even more to do the will of the Father with a new, creative vision abounding in mercy for each individual.
This is what I so wish that the church in Gozo: that we all yearn to do the same desert experience with Jesus during this Lenten season. I really wish that we all grow in our conviction that we are truly God’s children and treasure this identity which is really the basis of our mission. Oh how I do wish that we become even more rooted in our sense of belonging to God and that it informs our vision of Church.

Pope Benedict XVI in his Lenten message writes that “lent is a privileged time in our interior journey with the Lord who is the source of all mercy. It is a journey where the Lord himself will accompany us into the desert of our own poverty and stays with us unto Easter joy. We must let Jesus to enthrall us with the beauty of his goodness and justice, with his love and mercy. After all, Jesus the Son of God and the first of all creation, can and wants to lead us to his glory as he speaks to our hearts and espouses himself to us.”

As we reflect on Jesus hanging on the cross, we are filled with fervent spirit to make him known and loved even more. These reflections nurture in us an authentic spirituality which does not render religion into just a set of moral values, such as for example the following of regulations, devoid of a loving relationship. Reflecting on Jesus on the cross moves us to embrace the evangelical vision of life. This incorporates the everyday human/faith experience of the life we live. Even if sometimes life lacks some of its luster, it is always touched by the divine. Here, I refer especially to those who are having difficulties spiritually or those who for some reason feel distant from the church, those families who are in difficulty or those who are marginalized in society. Our loving relationship with Jesus moves us to continue to be built up as a church where Gospel love is the centerpiece of all religious customs and practices.

The Christian is stronger after withstanding temptation

The experience of Jesus in the desert included the temptations by the Devil. The author of the letter to the Hebrews writes that Jesus “was tempted like us in every way, but without sin” (Heb. 4, 15). The tempter did try to confuse Jesus even in his own identity as Son of God. In fact the tempter asks Jesus the question, “If you are the Son of God” (Mt 4, 3. 6). Remember that this temptation occurs right after Jesus was baptized in the Jordan and God proclaimed Jesus as His beloved Son on whom His favor rests (Mark 1, 11). Luke writes that the devil left Jesus until there was another opportunity (Luke 4, 13). This implies that the tempter continued to pursue Jesus and tempt Him all his life. Even when he was offering his whole life on the cross to the Father, Jesus was asked, “If you are God’s Son come down from that cross” (Mt 27, 40).

As Jesus was tempted, so are we tempted all of our life. It is a struggle against the evil spirit and the corrupt structures within our society. We ourselves do encounter times of inner doubt. Sometimes others try to confuse us even about our very identity as God’s sons and daughters, as brothers in Christ Jesus, or as members of the church.
There are times in our life when we are pressured to choose between a style of life that reflects our union with God, or a style of life that is opportunistically advantageous and self-centered.

As I mentioned before, in my friendly visits amongst you, I have witnessed first hand the blessings which God has bestowed on the Gozitan Church. At the same time I am very conscious and concerned that the evil spirit can frustrate all the blessings we possess and which we can loose if we are not vigilant enough.
In my visits with you, I have encountered married couples tempted in their fidelity toward one another.
I am consoled by parents who, in spite of everything, sacrifice for the wellbeing of the children.

I am edified by those who are without jobs but still continue to do their best to seek to provide for the family.
I met also with employers who try to continue to provide work opportunities that sustain families.

I am saddened to see tears in the eyes of parents whose children have special needs.
I witnessed whole families who take care of an elderly person in their home with dedication and great love.
I came across young people seeking the truth earnestly and making courageous and wise decisions.

I also met with educators who in spite of the lure of the market value of their gifts, continue to forgo financial gain and dedicate themselves to the education of our children.
I ran across those who at their own personal risk were able to overcome individualistic self-preservation and intimidations to denounce evil.
There are priests and religious who minister joyfully in spite of the weight and demands of pastoral work.

In my hospital visits, I found the ill willingly offering their struggles for the good of others. The physicians and nurses revealed to me that they do what they do out of compassion and service to those who are weak and suffering.

These are a few concrete examples of people from our midst who are accomplishing a lot of good. As they themselves confess they choose to be inspired and motivated by faith in God. These people are tempted in varied ways, but remain steadfast to the gospel values.
The Church today goes through similar trials. In my pastoral visits I have been blessed as I celebrated the liturgy with you in your parish communities; dialogued with the different groups, such as the priests (some of whom are serving in mission countries), the religious, parish councils, catechists, and Religious Organizations. All of us together need to examine ourselves constantly so that our pastoral choices will be synchronized with the Gospel, and not according to any whimsical interests. We must insist that the church be what it truly is and offer to the world what it has.

Lent: a time of hope

Although the Lenten journey into the desert is a real challenge that requires perseverance, I believe that Lent is a good time to be hope filled. And we have reason to be hope-full. Christ as one of us who went through the same human experience as each of us, does understand what we go through and does assist us in our tribulations (Heb. 2. 18). In the desert, Jesus was accompanied not only with wild beasts, but also with angels who assisted him. So we, who are tempted in every way, must remember that around us there are not only ‘wild beasts’ that terrify us but also ‘angles’ to assist us. (Apoc. 13, 7.). These ‘angels’ in human form, are not only the priests who give their life for others, or the confessors or spiritual directors. These human angels are also you the dedicated parents, you the young people with your generous love towards others, you all who love justice and right, you who are ill and who out of your pains continue to contribute to us all a sense and meaning of what can be a devastating experience. Last but not least you the children are human angels. You bring your laughter and joy to the world around you.

Our defence is the Word of God

Every time that Jesus was tempted Jesus referred to the Word of God – ‘as it is written’. We must do the same in any temptation. We are to refer to the Word of God in our decisions. It is a great consolation for me that within our Church many are going back to the Word of God. I feel that this is a much needed endeavor. I personally encourage all the pastoral initiatives that promote the meditation, reflection and celebration of the Word of God. The Lenten Sermons or the “Ezercizzi tar-Randan” are a time of grace when we reflect on the Word of God and grow in our consciousness as God’s sons and daughters. The Lenten liturgies especially those of Holy Week are a rich experience of the mystery of life in Christ. The prayers and penances we practice during lent and which lead us to renewed love reach their culmination in a spring-like newness of life celebrated on Easter Sunday.

So, it is the Spirit that led Jesus into the desert. It is the Spirit that assisted Jesus to live these intense moments and trials and stayed with him to the end. It is this same Spirit that Jesus bestowed on the Church as he was hanging on the cross (John 19, 30). This is the same Spirit who leads us out into the desert where we will delight in the intimacy with God even more as we pass through the different trials of life on earth.
The presence of this Spirit in us all is the reason for my hope. I pray that with the intercession of Mary our Mother this Spirit that is in you fills you with joyful hope.
I bestow on you my apostolic blessing.

Dated: Ash Wednesday 2006
Signed at: Gozo Curia, Victoria, Gozo.

+ Mario Grech
Bishop for your service

Msgr. Saviour Debrincat