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Now Is the Day of Salvation

Ash Wednesday


When first asked by the editors at the National Catholic Reporter to write a Lenten series, I asked myself, “What does an 81-year-old Brazilian cardinal, retired archbishop of São Paulo, have to say to a Christian community he has only visited occasionally?”

Then my heart answered my head! I could feel how much I wanted to speak out in favor of peace, of the poor, and against violence and a certain type of globalization. I wanted to make an appeal for a new ecumenical dialogue. But, above all, I wanted to be a voice in favor of hope. Without hope we have no chance of avoiding war and violence. Without hope we become fatalists and close our minds and our hearts to the possibility of change or of alternatives.

The liturgical readings for Ash Wednesday are a great help to those of us who want to grow in hope during this Lent. The most important reason for having hope is the great love that God has for us. The prophet Joel tells us that the Lord is gracious and compassionate, abounding in love. Psalm 51 insists on the same theme. God’s love is unfailing and his compassion is great.

This undying love for his people is an invitation to change on our part. Psalm 51 beseeches the Lord to create in us a pure heart and to renew in us a steadfast spirit. Joel asks us to return to God with all our heart so that he will have pity on his people in the midst of the nations.

St. Paul tells us that there is no time to waste: “I tell you, now is the time of God’s grace! Now is the day of salvation!” The gospel, however, has an important warning for us. The secret sin of religious people is hypocrisy: to do the right thing for the wrong reason, to become defenders of peace and justice because of vanity.

We like to say in Brazil, “Your head thinks from the spot where you put your feet.” We live in a Third World country; you live in the richest and the most powerful country in the world. With all the good will and intelligence we might have in the South and in the North of this hemisphere, our feet are solidly planted in different realities and we do not see things in the same way.

Brazil is the size of the continental United States, plus another Texas. It has a population of over 176 million people. My city, São Paulo, is larger than any urban center in the United States. Over 52 million people voted for our new president, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. He received 61 percent of all valid votes. On the day after the election your former secretary of the treasury, Paul O’Neill, said that our president has to prove to the “market” that he is not crazy!

You may feel indignation for what was said. But it would be difficult for me to express how our people felt when they heard this on TV or read it in the newspapers. I have read many articles in the last year that ask, “Why does the world hate the United States?”

The answers are all very different, but one underlying fact is that we -- the rest of the world -- feel that the government of your country despises us. In a television interview we heard a sociologist in Washington, D.C., declare that the Bush government is telling the world, “Our way or the highway!”

We know that those who read the National Catholic Reporter do not think this way. But the grace God gives to his people every year during Lent is the possibility of an even deeper conversion to him and to others. We in Latin America have to free ourselves of many of the prejudices we have in relation to you. And you have “to put your feet” where we are so that when we unite to search for alternatives for our world, we do it as brothers and sisters, as equals who have the same Father, and without any hint of paternalism.

On March 8, just before the First Sunday of Lent, the world celebrates International Women’s Day. This date was established in 1910. It was chosen because on March 8, 1857, women working in a clothing factory in New York went on strike for better working conditions and the right to vote. Many were killed.

For us, in the South, this struggle of the women is related to our understanding of the Statue of Liberty. Both are symbols of what we want the United States to be for the world. The statue that stands in New York harbor represents the people of the United States who, with open arms, look at the world with generosity and hope.

The women of New York who went on strike for better working conditions and the right to a more democratic society have much meaning for us. Over 100 years ago, these workers had the courage to unite against powerful economic and social injustice.

In 1857 the United States was not a world power. These women still worked in the so-called “sweatshops.” Today, 48 percent of the world’s most important companies and banks are owned by the United States. Of the 10 principal companies in the world, your country owns 90 percent.

No country in the Third World can have commercial freedom to act because the United States and the European Union control the international markets. Even Japan has only 10 percent of this financial pie.

This situation is not good for the world or for the people of the United States. If the international economic house falls down, and many specialists think it is only a question of when, this concentration of wealth will have tragic consequences for the people of the United States and for the world.

This year the Lenten season poses an appeal for conversion and for reconciliation with our merciful and compassionate God. We live in a worldwide system of economic injustice. Before this decade of the new millennium is over, the opposition to this system will be ever more intense. Where will we be as people of God? Will we be defending the cause of the poor in the United States and all over the world? Will we be promoting a Christian vision to the movement that struggles against neoliberalism? Or will we, too, be part of the “theology of prosperity for the few” so admired by many in the world today?

About the Translator
The translator for Cardinal Arns’ Lenten series in NCR is Ana Flora. Forty-three years ago this American — then known as Florence Mary Anderson — went to Brazil on a Fulbright Scholarship to do master’s work in Brazilian history. She has lived in her adopted homeland ever since, discovering a vocation to theology. A former student at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, she has been teaching New Testament studies in Brazil since 1970. She was a close friend of the late Penny Lernoux, a frequent Latin American contributor to NCR. It was Penny who introduced her to NCR and its peace and justice mission.

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2003