Bishop of San Angelo
Lent 2014 has the potential to be the best Lent you’ve ever had. With a little bit of planning and a willing heart, you can open yourself to receive graces like never before.
Lent is a season of conversion. Conversion is a turning away from illusory, dried-up wells that do not give life and a turning to God, our true fountain of love and abundant life. Lent originally developed as a 40-day retreat, preparing converts to be baptized at the Easter Vigil ceremony, but it is an opportunity for all members of the Church to grow.
From the very beginning of the Lenten season, the Church proclaims that Lent is about relationships. In the first reading of the Mass on Ash Wednesday, the Lord says in the Book of the Prophet Joel, “Return to me with your whole heart… return to the Lord, your God.”
As you think of what you will do this Lent, try to see how your observances connect with your relationships with God and with others. All the special practices of Lent (sacrifices, self-denial, and prayer) should bring us into a closer relationship with Jesus Christ. The point is that Jesus is so important to us that we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of this relationship.
Our Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are not intended to prove our own holiness or to win God’s love for us. God is already loving us and saving us. He loves us first. Then, in response to his unconditional love, we joyfully enter into activities of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in order to thank God and to open ourselves more fully to God’s gift of grace.
Any relationship needs quality time for good communication. Our relationship with God is fostered when we set aside specific quiet time to talk with God and let God talk to us. This will mean sometimes turning off the constant noise of the TV, the radio, and the sound system.
I recommend writing into our calendars some special prayer times during this Lent. This should begin, of course, with the most important prayer time -- Sunday Mass. If we will take some time to prepare personally for Mass, it will be so much more fruitful. This preparation can include reading the Scripture passages ahead of time, recalling the persons you need to pray for in the Mass, and purposefully arriving early in order to settle into a spirit of prayer. At the end of Mass, rather than rushing out of the church, it is spiritually beneficial to remain in place for a few minutes, sitting or kneeling, silently thanking God for the gift of the Eucharist.
It is very helpful during Lent to pray at home with the daily Mass readings, and to attend daily Mass when possible. Some other prayer forms to consider for your Lent this year might be Eucharistic Adoration, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, the Rosary, or the Way of the Cross. The Internet has some beautiful versions. One of my favorites is called Everyone’s Way of the Cross by Clarence Enzler.
Speaking of prayer, Lent is always a great time to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance, or Reconciliation. There are many extra opportunities in the parishes throughout our diocese, and they are listed for your convenience on the diocesan website, www.sanangelodiocese.org. When was the last time you went to Confession? Every sin, no matter how private, affects our relationship with God and neighbor. Confessing our sins to a priest clarifies the social dimension of sin and reconciles us through the ministry of the Church.
Here is another idea for a Lenten practice that weaves together our personal prayer and our relationships with others. We can dedicate ourselves to sending e-mails, text messages, or phone calls, to particular individuals we know, letting them know that we are praying for them in this holy season.
Fasting and abstinence are hallmarks of Lent. Fasting means consuming less quantity. Abstinence means refraining from a certain kind of thing, such as meat or dessert or television. These disciplines help us to get in touch with our deep inner hunger and thirst for God. They connect us in solidarity with our poor and malnourished brothers and sisters around the world.
When we eat less and allow ourselves to feel some physical hunger, we are reminded that only God will ultimately satisfy the deepest longing of our heart. We join more closely to Jesus Christ, whose suffering in the body gave life to the world. Jesus said, “If you want to be my follower, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” If we want our hearts to be filled with Jesus, then we need to make some room to let him in.
Fasting and abstinence can be practiced in many different ways. The Church has minimum expectations for Catholics. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence from meat. In addition, all Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence from meat. For members of our Latin Catholic Church, the norms on fasting are obligatory from age 18 until age 59. When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal. Two smaller meals may also be taken, but not to equal a full meal. The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onward.
Some choose additional forms of fasting or abstinence, such as refraining from consuming certain other foods, drinks, forms of entertainment, luxuries, time spent in front of screens, etc. It is not spiritually fruitful to become minimalists, just obeying the letter of the law. It is better to let it affect your heart. The fact is that we are all stuffed pretty full in our consumer-driven society. It is joyfully liberating to be able to live more simply and say, “I’m fine with less.”
Our acts of self-sacrifice during Lent are a way of saying that God is our greatest treasure, and that no other hungers should distract us from this deepest hunger. St. Augustine said: “You have made us dynamically oriented toward yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
At its core, almsgiving is the practice of giving money or goods to the poor. It includes not only the sharing of our time, space, and material resources with the needy, but also the practical good deeds we do for others. It is putting love into action. St. Paul said that there are three things that last -- faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.
Almsgiving is ultimately about building relationships. It puts us in touch with the needs of others. When we put a little bit of money each day into our containers for CRS Rice Bowl, for example, we remind ourselves that we are connected with those people around the world who will benefit from those funds. Whatsoever we do for the least of the Lord’s brothers and sisters, that we do for the Lord Jesus himself.
Our Lenten practices of almsgiving could take many different forms. These might include such things as, for example, volunteering to put our talents at the service of others, visiting the sick or imprisoned, increasing our tithing to our parish, forgiving someone’s debt to us, picking up trash in public areas, or supporting a charitable agency.
As we go through life, each of us has times when we are the one helping, and other times when we are the one being helped. No one is an island. We are not isolated robots. We need one another. Almsgiving is a concrete expression of that perennial truth.
With all of these things – our Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving -- what counts the most is the interior motive of conversion of heart to loving God and loving our neighbor. As your new bishop, I invite you to strengthen those relationships by observing a holy Lent that draws you to a more abundant and joyful life.