by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Lent is a season when we experience the solidarity of the entire church supporting us as we each attempt to grow in holiness.
Sometimes, the practice of giving up something for Lent, such as sweets, alcohol, television, video games, etc., is perceived as a “negative” approach to Lent in contrast to performing acts of charity for others. I have heard people declare that they are not giving up anything for Lent but, rather, they are doing all positive things.
While I understand the sentiment and agree that we must be careful not to turn Lent into an exercise where we are seeking to perfect ourselves through self-discipline, it is erroneous to view various forms of fasting or self-denial as “negative” practices. In reality, fasting can be an extremely powerful form of prayer.
In Chapter 9 of St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is able to heal a boy that his apostles had failed to help. When the disciples ask Jesus why they were unable to heal the child, Jesus observes that this kind of demon can only be cast out through “prayer and fasting” (9:29 RSV).
Fasting can be a powerful form of intercessory prayer for us and others. Fasting also is a means to gain freedom from addictions or dependencies. Fasting empowers us to remove the idols, the false gods, that have become more important to us than our relationship with God.
Recently, I visited our seminarians attending St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver. One of the unique features of the program at St. John Vianney Seminary is that before beginning theological or philosophical studies, seminarians must participate in what is labeled a “spirituality year.” The entire year is devoted to helping these future priests develop a vibrant prayer life.
During the spirituality year, the men attend lectures; however, they are not required to write term papers or take exams. They are given the opportunity to read and ponder Catholic spiritual classics. They study the masters of the Catholic spiritual tradition for their own self-enrichment.
During the spirituality year, the men are also required to participate in an immersion experience during which they serve the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalized. During the course of the year, the seminarians participate in several retreats and the entire experience culminates with a 30-day Ignatian retreat.
The spirituality year participants also engage in a technology fast during which they can only access the internet for a few hours on Saturday. For many at the beginning of the year, they consider this a Herculean task. But as the year progresses, they discover they are less distracted in prayer and better able to engage in much more fruitful and significant conversations with their classmates.
Fasting has the capacity to allow us to experience a greater level of authentic freedom, liberating us from dependencies on material things, while creating opportunities to grow in virtues that enable us to serve others. It also creates an environment where we develop a greater capacity for friendship.
An essential for a grace-filled and fruitful Lent is receiving the sacrament of reconciliation. It is through this sacrament that we experience the merciful love of Jesus in a most profound and personal way. A sincere and devout sacramental confession has the power to be life-changing.
The sacrament of reconciliation is also all about freedom. This sacrament has a unique power to unburden us from the weight of our sins. Through our experience of sacramental confession, we are better equipped to bring God’s mercy to others.
Once again this Lent, the opportunity for confession will be available in most of our churches every Wednesday from 6-7 p.m. Please take advantage of these Wednesday nights as well as the other opportunities for the sacrament of reconciliation.
The Catholic understanding of freedom is not the ability to do whatever we want as long as we do not hurt other people in some obvious way. From the Catholic perspective, freedom is not doing what we prefer but, rather, choosing the noble and the good.
In addition to our practices of self-renunciations helping us develop the habits of virtue, our experience of God’s merciful and unconditional love through the sacrament of reconciliation empowers and inspires us to bring God’s mercy to others.
While a fruitful Lent will involve acts of self-renunciation, Lent is not primarily about giving up pleasurable things but, rather, about developing the virtues that will help us realize the freedom and the joy that results from loving others. Lent is all about freedom and joy.
May our Lenten commitments this year liberate us from being enslaved by false gods, help us grow in virtue and enable us to experience the merciful love of Jesus in a new and more complete way! May Lent help us to be better equipped to bring the merciful and unconditional love of Jesus to others!