There’s a famous story told by Dr. Erwin Lutzer, former pastor of The Moody Church in Chicago, of a man who told him that when he was a young boy in Germany during the Holocaust, the church he attended with his family was in front of railroad tracks. Each Sunday, they would hear the train whistling by. Eventually, however, they started to hear cries coming from the speeding trains and realized that the train cars had to be carrying Jews on the way to concentration camps. Because they did not want to hear the tormented screams, they changed the program of the Sunday service so that they would be singing hymns when the trains were scheduled to approach.
“By the time the train came past our church,” Lutzer recounted the repentant man telling him, “we were singing at the top of our voices. If we heard the screams, we sang more loudly and soon we heard them no more.”
I recount that story, first, because religious people and others regularly face the temptation to “sing more loudly” when confronted head-on with the troubling reality of evil in the world.
But I also do so because I fear that if wrote on any other subject this week than on what is going on in the Ukraine, I, myself, would come off as engaging in high volume chanting.
Other subjects will have to wait. We need to hear the cries and respond with more than sweet-sounding melodies.
That’s what Pope Francis asked the world to do together on Ash Wednesday.
At the end of his February 23 General Audience, the Holy Father stated, “My heart aches greatly at the worsening situation in Ukraine. I would like to appeal to everyone, believers and non-believers alike. Jesus taught us that the diabolical senselessness of violence is answered with God’s weapons, with prayer and fasting. I invite everyone to make March 2, Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting for peace. I encourage believers in a special way to dedicate themselves intensely to prayer and fasting on that day.”
Four days later, after praying the Angelus with pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, he reiterated the appeal.
“In recent days we have been shaken by something tragic: war. Let us pray to God more intensely. I renew to all the invitation to make March 2, Ash Wednesday, a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine, a day to be close to the sufferings of the Ukrainian people, to feel that we are all brothers and sisters, and to implore of God the end of the war.”
Initially I was frustrated with the Holy Father’s choice of date. “Why wait a week for something so urgent?” I thought, deeming that if Russian propaganda and aims were to be believed, Kyiv and most of Ukraine would already be by that point in Putin’s hands.
Moreover, I think it’s generally imprudent even to give the perception of diminishing the most important Spiritual realities to garnish for earthly concerns, as happened last Easter Sunday, when headlines were changed from the Christian celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection to the International Day for Mine Awareness, because of a letter the pope published that morning to the UN Secretary-General.
Eventually, however, I began to see that if Catholic priests and faithful focused on Ash Wednesday this year without reference to the Ukraine, we would all be running the deadly risk of just “singing more loudly.” Indeed if we try to live Lent just adding an intercession for the Ukraine at Mass or an extra Hail Mary at the end of a family Rosary, we would be, I think, missing the point of what Lent is, what Lenten conversion is supposed to accomplish, and how our prayer, fasting and almsgiving are meant to change us.
What’s happening in Ukraine — not to mention in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mali, Myanmar, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere — is meant to bring us to conversion. The world often behaves like the rich man in Jesus’ parable as Lazarus is dying at his gate: feasting sumptuously while others are starving, suffering, and even under attack (Lk 16:19-31). While whole societies are attacked by militarized bandits and left to die in urban ditches, many just change the channel and, like the priest and Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, pass by (Lk 10:29-37).
The conversion that Lent is meant to bring about is not just a minor course correction but a thorough change in the way we look at God, ourselves, others and reality. It involves beginning to look at the world through Jesus’ lenses, of having our own hearts burst with pity for the crowd, and of drawing near to care for others whenever we find them hungry, thirsty naked, far from home, sick, imprisoned — or being assailed by missiles, cluster munitions, tanks, grenades, bombs, and bullets.
The USA, in particular, needs a national conversion. To whom more is given, more is to be expected (Lk 12:48). In the not too distant past, other nations looked to the United States as a nation of valor, ready to get engaged to defend the innocent against maleficent bullies, even at supreme cost. We formed generations of heroes who, in the image of the Good Shepherd, were willing to lay down their lives for people they didn’t even know. While certainly imperfect, we prized virtue and sought to be — and help others to become — courageous and good.
In the view of many in the developing world today, we have gradually become bullies rather defenders, ideological colonizers mandating adhesion to destructive tenets of the sexual revolution as a precondition to official development assistance, or economic predators exploiting the vulnerability of peoples with one-sided deals.
At home, rather than forming new generations with heroic virtue, we have prioritized “safe spaces” and manipulated educational, sports and military standards as if we were dealing with doll houses that could be rearranged according to the emotivist spirit of the age. Many of our leading citizens are competing for an imaginary Neville Chamberlain Statesmanship Award — and pretending it’s an honor.
We need conversion. We need God. We need to think, speak and act differently.
The three traditional Lenten practices Jesus addresses in the Gospel heard on Ash Wednesday are not only general medicine but particularly relevant remedies to the situation in the Ukraine.
Our prayer needs to change. We need to pray as if life depends on it, because many lives do. We need to intercede for the people of the Ukraine the way Abraham did for the few righteous, Moses did for the Israelites, and Jesus on the cross did for us. Jesus promised that faith the size of a mustard seed could move mountain ranges and we should take Him seriously: praying for God to open the eyes of the warmongers or close them permanently; imploring for peace, first by removing the planks from our eyes, so that we can be effective peacemakers and builders restoring the tranquility of order without.
Our fasting needs to change. We need to fast like the people of Nineveh for mercy, like Moses on the mountain in reparation for the sins of Israel, like Queen Esther in petition to save her people, like Jesus so that we might live by every word that comes from God’s mouth. Some evils, the pope reminds us, are expunged only by prayer and the corporeal petition of the body.
Our charity needs to change, as we concretely love our neighbor in our worldwide neighborhood. Both those under attack in the Ukraine and those who have fled to other countries need help. Reliable international Catholic organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need have extensive networks to deliver that aid through the Churches. The people under attack from those seeking to kill or subjugate them, however, need more than money — and our country has more than money to give.
In response to the reality in the Ukraine, the conversion and transformed prayer, fasting, and charity that began on Ash Wednesday in response to Pope Francis’ appeal should continue throughout Lent and indeed until the end of the invasion.
Anchor columnist Father Roger Landry can be contacted at email@example.com.