Pope Francis is the most popular religious figure in America today. A recent poll found that nearly three in four Americans view him favorably; 88 percent of American Catholics approve of his job performance. He has captured attention by washing the feet of women and Muslims, embracing a severely disfigured man, and initiating ministry to those in need. TIME named him their “Person of the Year,” to no one’s surprise.
Now the pope is making headlines for another reason: he inadvertently used an obscenity in his weekly blessing from the Vatican. He was speaking in Italian, which is not his native language. At one point he stated, “If each of us does not amass riches only for oneself, but half for the service of others, in this [obscenity], in this case the providence of God will become visible through this gesture of solidarity.” He meant to use caso, the Italian word for “example.” Instead he used the word cazzo, which is an obscenity. The error immediately went viral on Italian websites and on YouTube.
Unfortunately, the clamor about Pope Francis’ mistake is distracting us from the vital point he made.
Today is the beginning of Lent. The name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon or Teutonic word lencten, which means “spring.” This is a 40-day period (excluding Sundays) of spiritual preparation for Easter Sunday. Why 40 days? Jesus fasted in the wilderness for “forty days and forty nights” (Matthew 4:2). The Hebrews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years of purification before entering their Promised Land. The world was flooded for 40 days during the time of Noah, washing away the evil that had infested it. According to tradition, Jesus’ body lay 40 hours in the tomb before his resurrection. These facts led early Christians to set aside 40 days before Easter for spiritual purification and preparation.
One way to observe Lent is to do what Pope Francis suggested: find ways to serve others. Jesus’ last act before his betrayal was to wash the feet of the one who would betray him and the men who would forsake him. Stephen’s last act before his execution was to pray for his murderers: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). As the hands and feet of Jesus (1 Corinthians 12:27), when we help those in need, “the providence of God will become visible through this gesture of solidarity.”
So here’s my vow for Lent: I will find a way to serve someone, every day. This sounds like something I should be doing anyway, and it is. But I’ve not been as intentional or proactive as I will be now. This commitment, if kept for 40 days, will become a habit, a lifestyle, and a witness to a skeptical culture.
The world can ignore our sermons and reject our theology, but as the pope’s popularity shows, it has no resistance to acts of love performed in grace. Will you serve the next person you encounter today?