‘When our God reveals himself, his message is always one of freedom,’ Pope Francis has said in his 2024 Lenten message.

On Thursday 1 February, two weeks out from Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis released his annual message for the Lenten season, reflecting on the gift of Christian freedom and how the desert is a time for maturing in that gift.

‘In the desert, [Israel] received the “Ten Words” as a thoroughfare to freedom. We call them “commandments”, in order to emphasise the strength of the love by which God shapes his people,’ the Pope said. ‘It is not answered straightaway; it has to mature as part of a journey.’

He encouraged people to see the desert as the place where God leads his people as a ‘bridegroom’.

‘Lent is the season of grace in which the desert can become once more—in the words of the prophet Hosea—the place of our first love (Hos 2:16–17) … Like a bridegroom, the Lord draws us once more to himself, whispering words of love to our hearts.’

Although in the sacrament of Baptism we have already been given the gift of freedom, ‘there remains in us an inexplicable longing for slavery,’ Pope Francis said, much like the Israelites longing to go back to Egypt.

For this reason, the Pope encouraged us to welcome Lent ‘as the great season in which [God] reminds us: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:2). Lent is a season of conversion, a time of freedom.’

Like a bridegroom, the Lord draws us once more to himself, whispering words of love to our hearts.

‘The desert is the place where our freedom can mature in a personal decision not to fall back into slavery.’

This kind of journey, however, naturally entails great struggle—a struggle against ‘the idols we set up for ourselves’. And this gift of freedom we have been give is meant to be a gift for others.

Although Lent is a ‘time to act,’ Pope Francis said, ‘to act also means to pause. To pause in prayer, in order to receive the word of God, to pause like the Samaritan in the presence of a wounded brother or siste. Love of God and love of neighbour are one. Not to have other gods is to pause in the presence of God beside the flesh of our neighbour.’

Slow down, then, and pause!

The three pillars of Lent—prayer, almsgiving, and fasting—are ‘a single movement of openness and self-emptying, in which we cast out the idols that weigh us down, the attachments that imprison us. Then the atrophied an isolated heart will revive. Slow down, then, and pause!’

‘The exodus from slavery to freedom is no abstract journey,’ Pope Francis said. It means having to ‘open our eyes to reality’, to hear the cry of the poor as God heard the cry of his enslaved people.

‘Let us ask ourselves: Do we hear that cry? Does it trouble us? Does it move us?’

Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, presented the Lenten message at a Vatican news conference.

‘Traditionally, Lent is a time to review our lives and to individually face the need for personal conversion,’ he said. However, the Pope is challenging the faithful also to seek to change the world.

As believers and as citizens, he said, Christians should ask, ‘Where are we on the journey with so many siblings at home and worldwide who cry out and ask us to walk with them?’

‘By embracing the gift of Lent, every Christian community can accompany its members in facing the challenges of our time,’ the Cardinal said, because ‘the hoped-for changes in the world begin with change in me and in you.’

Emilia Palladino, a professor in the social sciences department of Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, said ‘the inequalities present today are an abomination.’

By embracing the gift of Lent, every Christian community can accompany its members in facing the challenges of our time.

There is the gap between ‘the haves and have-nots’ and an outright denial of ‘human dignity and basic human rights for entire portions of humanity kept in slavery,’ she said.

In 2023, she said, three out of 10 people did not have access to essential health services, and an estimated 2 billion people faced hunger in order to meet expenses related to medical care and medicines, according to the World Health Organization.

As of 2023, she said, there are still 152 million children and adolescents who are victims of child labour, according to the International Labour Office. Some 40,000 of them are working in mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, extracting coltan, which is needed to make smartphones, tablets and computers, tools that end up being a form of addiction for others.

In 2021, she added, 28 million people were trapped in forced labour, and 22 million into forced marriage, in addition to the countless victims of human trafficking, according to a United Nations report.

This is where the lack of hope wields all its power, she said, because the enormity and breadth of these problems act as a depressing justification for inaction.

‘But we can change what little we have been given: a lifestyle more respectful of oneself, others and the environment; re-learn solidarity and fraternity, first of all in our own homes; working together to build a healthy work environment, promoters of the common good and not slaves to profit at all costs,’ she said.

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An illustration by Mauro Pallotta, known as ‘Maupal’, for Pope Francis’ Lenten message for 2024. (Photo: CNS, courtesy of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.)

The Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development asked Mauro Pallotta, an Italian street artist, known as ‘Maupal’, to help illustrate the Pope’s message with a new drawing every week throughout the period of Lent, which concludes on 28 March, Holy Thursday.

His first illustration, released ahead of Lent, depicts an image of Pope Francis pushing a wheelbarrow containing a sack full of faith through a desert of nails ‘that represent idols old and new, and our captivity,’ he said.

Nails in the road would puncture the rubber wheel, putting the journey to a stop, but by ‘following Pope Francis, who opens the path with the power of faith’, the road becomes passable for everyone ‘and the goal attainable,’ he said.