By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY, Commentary | Published March 6, 2014 | En Español
We all might be somewhat familiar with the holy seasons that other religions observe, such as the Jewish High Holy Days that occur in the fall and the Muslim period of fasting called Ramadan. There are many others as well; practically every faith has a season for penance and fasting although the theological reasons and traditions vary greatly for each religion.
We Catholics begin our special time this week on Ash Wednesday. Lent is the season for prayer, fasting and works of charity that are all designed to change our hearts and prepare us to celebrate the Easter season in all of its glory.
This unique time of the year calls all of us to reflect on the journey of spiritual conversion that each one of us must pursue throughout our entire life. Each Lent we must take up this task once again. It is an annual activity that reminds us that spiritual renewal is never a finished endeavor. The threefold focus of Lent seeks to change our relationship with ourselves (fasting), with others (works of charity) and with God (prayer). The simple fact that this is a yearly exercise is an indication that these relationships can and do manage to change—for better or for worse.
Fasting and abstinence do seem to attract the most attention when it comes to Lent since we often find them to be the most challenging. We all need to discover an activity that is indicative of our desire to change our relationship with ourselves by taking on some activity that reminds us of our need to transform our lives. Last Sunday, as I celebrated Mass at St. Anthony of Padua, Father Victor Galier was reminding the congregation of the beginning of Lent that was to start on Ash Wednesday. He told the assembly that we should take on a penance that is serious—“not giving up brussels sprouts for Lent,” which for most people would not be a very difficult undertaking. Our fasting and abstinence should represent a serious effort at spiritual renewal.
Our Church proposes some activities that Catholics (who are 18 to 59 years of age and in good health) should embrace throughout this holy season. Specifically fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstaining from meat (for those over 14) on the Fridays of Lent are well-known obligations. However, what about vegans who abstain from meat, seafood and dairy products every day of their lives? Even Catholic vegans must find ways to express their desire for spiritual renewal during this time of year. Each one of us must determine a way of entering into Lent that is intended to change our hearts and renew our lives of faith.
Then there is Lent’s obligation to intensify our prayer. Many people do so by attending Mass more frequently during Lent—some even go to Mass every day of Lent. Nevertheless, whatever your extra prayer entails, it is intended to carve out a greater space in your life for God—to change your relationship with God.
Finally, we are all asked to change our relationship with others—particularly with the poor through our acts of charity. This has been a recurrent theme for Pope Francis throughout this first year of his papacy. He has urged the Church not to forget the poor who are so often forgotten. Operation Rice Bowl is an initiative from Catholic Relief Services that is a gentle daily nudge to set aside our loose change to be contributed as a Lenten gift to help feed the poor. That little cardboard receptacle not only holds our surplus change but represents a lifeline for those who are hungry in today’s world—unfortunately a growing population.
All of these activities—fasting and abstinence, prayer, and works of charity—are at the heart of the season of Lent as ways for us to prepare for the new life of Easter. They help us anticipate the reception of our Catechumens and Candidates, those who will soon join us around the Altar of the Lord when the entire Church is renewed and annually made vibrant through the Risen Christ. A Blessed Lent to all!