Lenten acts of penance help free us to encounter God

Life will be victorious

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

A couple weeks ago, while visiting one of our parishes, a person remarked: “I need Lent to begin now!” 

Why is Lent so late this year? The beginning of Lent is determined by the date of Easter. At the Council of Nicaea in the year 325, it was determined to celebrate Easter on the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.

In addition to the minimal penitential practices that the church requires for all her members (abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent and fasting — only one full but simple meal with two other modest meals and no eating between meals — on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), it is good to have a personal plan for Lent.

I recommend that your personal Lenten plan include four elements: 1) additional penitential practices; 2) an additional prayer commitment; 3) additional acts of love or service; and 4) reception of the sacrament of penance.

Sometimes, we might have a tendency to downplay the penitential aspect of Lent. I have heard people declare that they are not going to give up anything for Lent, but just focus on the positive — additional acts of charity and service.

I can understand the sentiment, but I personally find the penitential part of the season liberating.

Acts of penance help to free us from those things that we have allowed to assume lordship of our hearts.

As we begin Lent, it is good to ask the question: What are the idols in my life? Your initial reaction may well be: “I do not have idols in my life! That was a problem in Old Testament times, but not today.”

It is true that most of us do not have little images of false gods that we worship. However, a broader understanding of idol is anything that I value more than my relationship with God.

It could be food, drink, forms of entertainment, experiences of pleasure, friendships, etc. None of these things are necessarily bad in themselves, but if we seek refuge and comfort in them, instead of prayer and our friendship with Jesus, then they have greater dominion over our hearts than Our Lord.

What are the things that I choose to do instead of giving more time to spiritual reading and prayer? Fasting can be the spiritual tool that empowers us to renounce these false gods and gain freedom from the stranglehold they have on our hearts. Fasting can also be a powerful form of intercessory prayer for our own spiritual welfare and for the intentions of others.

Lent is also a time to ramp up our prayer life. Many individuals during Lent attempt to participate, if not daily, at least more frequently in Mass.

If you do not already spend an hour in eucharistic adoration, Lent is a wonderful time to begin to build such a habit. Or if you already pray regularly in the presence of the eucharistic Lord, Lent is a perfect time to increase time in adoration. 

Another excellent Lenten practice is to pray over and meditate upon the daily Mass readings, even if you are not actually able to attend Mass every day. For some, Lent may be a time to incorporate the daily praying of the rosary or some other Marian devotion in your prayer routine.

Lent is also a great time to begin or increase spiritual reading — prayerfully reading one of the Gospels or Epistles, or one of the spiritual classics of our Catholic tradition, or to delve into some excellent contemporary Catholic spiritual writers. The School of Love (www.schooloflovekc.com) is offering free a special daily online meditation for couples and families.

Complementing our penitential practices and increasing the time and quality of our prayer should naturally lead us to desire to serve others more and better. First, reflect upon your familial relationships, those with whom you share a special bond.

Are there relationships in your life that you are neglecting? Do you need to be more present to your spouse, to spend time with one or more of your children, an aged parent, friend, neighbor etc.?

After considering how Our Lord may be calling you to be more attentive to those who have a special claim on your heart, then expand the horizons of your reflection, pondering how Our Lord might be calling you to help others in the larger community.

Lent is a great time to revisit the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and ask Our Lord to make clear to you how he desires you to live these in the unique circumstances of your life.

Finally, Lent is a special time to take advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation. Our priests will make themselves available as confessors again on the Wednesday evenings of Lent. 

Many of our parishes will have penance services with confessors from other parishes available. In the sacrament of penance, we experience the mercy of God revealed in Jesus applied to the personal circumstances of our lives.

It is impossible to receive this sacrament with sincerity and not experience a tremendous peace. The sacrament of reconciliation also helps us become more merciful and more loving toward others.

Develop your personal plan for Lent. Work it diligently the next six weeks. If you do, I can guarantee you will enjoy an incredible Easter!

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