I’m writing this on the first day of Lent, when my good intentions are still fairly robust. I tell myself that I’ll reflect on the Mass readings every day, which is something I try to do regularly but often neglect. I sometimes turn to the Office of Readings too, because I enjoy the wide range of ancient and modern sources that I find there.
When I reflect on the creativity and vision of the ancient and medieval Church, I often think of how meagre and uninspiring much of our modern faith is in comparison, as if we live in a permanent Lenten season of spiritual hunger and deprivation. So often, our faith is presented as a set of rules, prohibitions, and obligations that have little to do with joy and abundance of living, and more to do with being cultural party poopers who sit in a corner and condemn the revellers. I find myself praying with Saint Teresa of Ávila, “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.”
Today’s reading was from a sermon by the fifth century saint and pope, Leo the Great. He is writing about fasting and almsgiving, but he does so in the context of a lavishly expansive joy in creation and in our human capacity for renewal and generosity. Here is how the extract from his sermon begins:
Dear friends, at every moment the earth is full of the mercy of God, and nature itself is a lesson for all the faithful in the worship of God. The heavens, the sea and all that is in them bear witness to the goodness and omnipotence of their Creator, and the marvelous beauty of the elements as they obey him demands from the intelligent creation a fitting expression of God’s gratitude.
Pope Leo witnesses to a faith that celebrates what Pope Francis calls “the intrinsic dignity of creation”, in its capacity to give praise in ways appropriate to every species and natural phenomenon, and to arouse in us – “the intelligent creation” – a sense of wonder and gratitude appropriate to our own species. We desperately need to rediscover this capacity to learn from nature how to give thanks and praise to God. This means seeing our call to care for creation not as an onerous burden of guilt and denial brought on by the environmental crisis, but as a joyous response to the abundant goodness, beauty, and mystery that surround us and of which we are a part. Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ invites us to reflect anew on this forgotten and neglected aspect of our faith, which tells us that “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.” (Para 233)
The sermon by Leo the Great goes on to speak of sin, but here too the tone is that of joy and mercy, not of guilt and self-flagellation. We rejoice in the forgiveness of sins, in our baptismal rebirth and in the knowledge that even though we continue to fail and fall short because of our “mortal nature”, we are always able to do better and to make progress in our spiritual lives. We are called to fulfill our Lenten fast, “not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin.” This is “holy and spiritual fasting,” and its closest companion is almsgiving.
This co-dependence between spiritual fasting and almsgiving is a key theme of all Pope Francis’s teaching, including the vision he sets out in Laudato Si’. To reject the avarice and waste of consumerism, to embrace a simpler and less destructive way of living, is to rediscover more joyful and abundant ways of being and belonging:
If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled. (Para 11)
I find myself comparing the two cultures I know best from having lived in them for many years: sub-Saharan Africa (I was born and grew up in Zambia and have lived in Kenya and Zimbabwe), and modern England where I’ve lived for the past thirty five years. At the risk of over-simplification, and with many exceptions on both sides, I do believe that secular individualism has had a hugely destructive impact on modern liberal democracies as they fragment and implode (which is what’s happening in Britain today), while a sense of communal responsibility rooted in religious faith remains far more the norm among the communities I know from the Global South. The Irish have a saying: “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine” – “In the shadow of each other, we live”. African theologians refer to it as ubuntu – “I am because we are”. Let me turn to three examples of where I see this strong sense of justice inspired by faith and rooted in communal values surviving in secular societies such as Britain, thanks to diasporic communities. All three are from the super-rich world of premier league footballers, and all are motivated by personal experiences of poverty, and by deep religious faith.
Marcus Rashford is an English footballer of West Indian and Jamaican descent who was born and grew up in Manchester. His mother was a single parent who worked hard and often went hungry to feed her five children. Rashford was already famous as a world-class footballer, but in recent years he has gained widespread admiration for his philanthropy and political activism on behalf of the growing number of homeless people and children living in poverty in Britain. This goes far beyond charitable giving, for he has become a thorn in the flesh of this country’s leaders with his outspoken critique of the structural injustices of racism and classism. Rashford credits his mother’s deep Christian faith for inspiring his values, saying that “the faith we have in God is shown by the people that we are.”
Senegalese footballer Sadio Mané is worth millions in transfer fees and has played for different premier league football teams, including Liverpool. There was widespread media consternation when he was photographed carrying an iPhone with a cracked screen. Asked in an interview with Senegal’s Teledakar why he didn’t replace it, his reply was the stuff of legends – the kind of legends we so desperately need to set us on the path to recovering our squandered and broken humanity:
Why would I want ten Ferraris, 20 diamond watches and two jet planes? What would that do for the world? I starved, I worked in the fields, I played barefoot, and I didn’t go to school. Now I can help people. I prefer to build schools and give poor people food or clothing. I have built schools [and] a stadium; we provide clothes, shoes, and food for people in extreme poverty. In addition, I give 70 euros per month to all people from a very poor Senegalese region in order to contribute to their family economy. I do not need to display luxury cars, luxury homes, trips, and even planes. I prefer that my people receive a little of what life has given me.
Mané is a devout Muslim, son of an imam whose death when Mané was only seven deeply affected the young child. He has been described as an ambassador for Islam. His story counters so much of the Islamophobia that drives many European countries, including Britain, and fuels an increasingly dangerous lurch towards the Far Right in which the defence of so-called Christian values is used to foment racism and violence.
The last footballer I want to mention died tragically in the Turkish earthquake in early February. Christian Atsu’s body was found amidst the rubble in the town of Antakya. Atsu grew up in desperate poverty in Ghana and he too became a premier league footballer who played for several European teams, including Hatayspor in Turkey. An obituary in British newspaper The Guardian refers to his modesty and his love for his family. Atsu described his Christian faith as “the most important thing in my life,” and it inspired him to give back to those who have nothing. He was an ambassador for the global charity Arms Around the Child which provides care and protection for abused and orphaned children, those who live in child-headed households, and those affected by HIV/AIDS.
The latest census in England and Wales shows that Christianity is in sharp decline, with less than half the population describing themselves as Christian. I’ve already referred to the kind of dour-faced religiosity that gives faith a bad name and probably drives many people away, but that’s only half the story. So many of this country’s diasporic and migrant communities offer a different way of expressing faith, where belief in God weaves together great perseverance, endurance, and achievement, with a passionate commitment to social justice and a disdain for the trappings of abundant wealth. The Guardian is not noted for its promotion of religious ideals, but in 2021 it published an article under the heading, “God-given talent: Saka, Rashford and Sterling blaze a trail for black British Christians,” which acknowledges “the distinctive contribution that black British Christians … are making to the national story.” Mané is a reminder that it’s not just Christians but also those of other faiths, including Islam, who are part of this unfolding story of the positive influence that people of faith can have on society. The article quotes theologian Selina Stone, who observes that for footballers such as Rashford and others, “there is something of God’s blessing on them for them to be where they are, along with a recognition that, having been so blessed, they have to take responsibility for helping others.”
I come back to Rashford’s words: “the faith we have in God is shown by the people that we are.” In Britain, the decline in religious values has not coincided with greater social justice, equality, and respect for human rights. Quite the contrary. Whether or not there is a causal relationship between the two is open to debate, but to embrace the kind of faith promoted by Popes Leo and Francis and practised by those three footballers seems to me a good way to set about repairing our broken and tormented societies.
 I use the online app, iBreviary, which is where I’m quoting from: https://www.ibreviary.org/en/.