Given all the excitement his papacy has generated, the approach of the first full Lenten season under Pope Francis resonates particularly with Catholics — even fallen-off Catholics — who prefer to see faith as social activism and not as Sunday pageant. Since he became pope last March, Francis has repeatedly called for a church of service and justice, and not one that is insular and obsessed with doctrine.
His calling out of corrupt financial systems that foster economic disparity has been ringing bells around the world, and not only among Catholics. His first Lenten message is about poverty and the Christian imperatives of charity and humility.
In Baltimore this coming weekend, Catholic Charities stages its 35th Annual Archdiocesan Social Ministry Convocation, with its themes of "care for the Earth," "care for the poor," and "listening to Pope Francis." This is workshop training for people who believe acts of charity, delivered close to home, are what make the church relevant and effective: working with immigrants, the poor, the addicted, the hungry and the homeless.
That's the stuff of Jesus.
That's what Francis is talking about — faith as ministry, and ministry that leans toward social justice.
It's a call to action to all Catholics, including those of us who complain about the church's outdated rules — the celibate priesthood, the prohibition against female priests, for instance. Francis' call is an empowering message. It means you get to save the world if you want to, a little piece at a time.
I'll come back to this in a minute.
Before I go on, a few words about the state of the world as Lent arrives. It's kind of hard to ignore the buildup of grim news:
Civil war and the murder of civilians in Syria, atrocious human rights violations in North Korea, long knives in a train station in China. February was a horrendous month in Iraq — 703 people dead, more than 1,300 wounded, the vast majority of the casualties civilian. They haven't seen violence on that scale since shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq to make it better and the world safer.
Humans keep making a mess. Humans keep resisting peace and progress.
And now we have the outrageous rattling of a Russian sword in Crimea.
Whether driven by politics, ethnic hatred or just macho-man madness, certain humans keep finding ways to compound problems, inflict pain or destroy the lives of others.
So you're standing here on the ground, in Baltimore, or some place in Maryland, or any place on the map of the world, and you ask yourself: What can I do?
Maybe there isn't much you can do about Vladimir Putin, or about the war in Syria, or about the way things are in North Korea or China, or any place where people suffer.
You can have an informed conscience, of course, and you can speak out about the man-made horrors.
And you can write checks to humanitarian organizations. There's a lot you can do, I suppose, from your desk, or on Facebook.
But here we are, approaching Ash Wednesday and the first full Lenten season with Francis in the Vatican, and his message is pretty clear by now.
"I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets," he said last year.
I have heard many people express delight and excitement at that message, and that includes many friends and relatives who have been dismayed and even broken-hearted about the Church's direction for a couple of decades, arguably two of the worst in its history.
Now they hear a fresh, liberating voice that speaks truth to power and that calls for the church to hit the bricks.
And that's great. But a year into Francis' papacy, what are we really willing to do?
That convocation I mentioned: It's all day Saturday at Seton Keough High School. There will be Catholic volunteers there who have been serving Francis' message all along, saving a little piece of the world at a time. They're veterans of social ministry.
"Francis' concentration on mercy and compassion are the bedrocks of Catholic social teaching, and it's nice to have them reinforced for those of us who have been plugging away for years," says Lisa O'Reilly, a member of the convocation's planning team. "But we would like to see those who haven't been involved, who want to answer Francis's call."
There are workshops on housing the poor, treating drug addicts, helping prisoners and their families, helping low-wage workers, promoting fair-trade practices, getting parishes engaged in environmental causes, helping immigrants negotiate the new country.
"The Church is in a new place these days," says O'Reilly. "Everyone is wondering just how [Francis' papacy] impacts the present membership. I think more people want to come back to the church, on the strength of Francis' message. The question is, are they energized enough to go out and do it?"
Here's your chance, brothers and sisters: 8:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Seton Keough. Walk-ins welcome.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.