by Pope John Paul II.
“Penitence,” in the evangelical sense, above all means this: “to be converted.” The real purpose of it is interior purification, which is necessary in order to be able to meet “in the secrecy of the heart,” with the merciful holiness of God.
This is the real meaning of every real penitential commitment: to withdraw from the current of exterior things, to silence the advancing hubbub of so many human voices, in order to return into oneself, into one’s deepest inner life. For it is in the silence of our hearts that God waits for us.
When, in fact, Jesus says: Go into your room and shut the door (Mt 6:6), he does not call us to an isolation that is an end in itself. That “shutting of the door” corresponds to the one decisive opening of the human heart: the opening to God.
Then your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Mt 6:4). In the meeting with God, there is the “reward” to which every human heart aspires: the experience of forgiveness and spiritual liberation.
Penitence, therefore, is not just effort; it is also joy. Sometimes, in fact, it is a great joy of the human spirit, a joy that cannot spring from other sources.
Does it seem to you that many of your contemporaries have lost, to a certain extent, the flavor of this joy? They have lost it, because they have mislaid the deep sense of that spiritual effort which makes it possible to find oneself again in the whole truth of one’s own humanity.
Our civilization, especially in the West—connected as it is with the development of science and technology—glimpses the need for intellectual and physical effort. It does not, on the other hand, sufficiently consider the importance of the effort necessary to recover and promote moral values, which constitute the most authentic inner life of man.
And it pays for it with that sense of emptiness and confusion, which the young feel especially, sometimes even dramatically.
The severe liturgy of Ash Wednesday and, subsequently, the whole period of Lent, constitute a systematic call to the rediscovery of those values, and to a renewed experience of that meeting with Christ which alone can give life its full meaning.
Let us say so clearly: Lent is the path towards the joy of the meeting with the risen Christ.
My wish for each of you is that you take advantage of the opportunity offered by this period of the liturgical year to set out courageously.
From an address in St. Peter’s Basilica to students and their teachers on February 28, 1979.
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