What are you giving up for Lent?
That is a question you may ask of a friend in the coming days – or be asked yourself. The question can generate a frivolous answer:
- I’m giving up chocolate and hope I do better than I did last year.
- I’m giving up cooked spinach – never eat it anyway.
- I’m giving up skydiving
- I’m giving up working overtime
Of course, many Catholics give up something truly serious for Lent as a reminder of the sacrifice of Christ. But when ZENIT contacted a number of bishops about their plans for Lent, we were reminded that Lent is about more than giving something up; it is about really doing something. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this clear:
1438 The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. 36 These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).
ZENIT asked three questions of the bishops we contacted:
- In these challenging times for the Church, what sort of Lenten sacrifices do you recommend people take on for personal spiritual growth and on behalf of intentions for the healing of the Church?
- Are there positive actions you recommend people take during Lent to improve their lives – in other words, instead of sacrifices are improvements they should pursue.
- Can you share your personal sacrifices or prayer intentions you plan for Lent?
Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland provided a wealth of ideas to help Catholics live a fuller Lent… and an ample share of Irish wisdom.
“I recall a slogan that was used during Lent for many years here in Ireland and it went something like this: ‘Lent is what you do!’ While that slogan is not something that tends to be used in recent years, the Season of Lent is still something that we do very well in the Church here in Ireland,” according to Archbishop Martin.
“I like to think of Lent as an opportunity for me to encourage the faithful to return to God with all their hearts and to observe the three pillars of the Lenten season: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. This can be assisted by daily reflection on the Word of God in the Lenten readings for Mass. There’s a reflective and prayerful aspect to the Season of Lent but we should also allow ourselves to feel challenged, to take action and to focus on how we might grow closer to God by our daily actions, thoughts, words, and, to consider what sacrifice might be made to achieve this.
“Lent also offers us an opportunity to discover anew the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to avail more frequently of the transforming power of its grace, during the Lenten Season and throughout the year.
“Each year I also recommend that people support the Lenten campaign by Trócaire, the Overseas Development Agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Their annual campaigns encourage Catholics to engage in charitable works to support communities in need around the world.”
Archbishop Martin stressed that Lent is a key time for penance, which he says is an essential part of a Christian’s life. Penance recalls the passion and death of Christ. And he has a list of ways suggested for people to observe penance and sacrifice during Lent:
- Abstaining from meat or some other food
- Abstaining from alcoholic drink or smoking
- Making a special effort at involvement in family prayer and meditation on God’s Word in the daily readings
- Making a special effort to participate in Mass during weekdays of Lent
- Visiting the Blessed Sacrament
- Making the Stations of the Cross
- Fasting from all food for a longer period than usual and perhaps giving what is saved to the needy
- Helping the poor, sick, old, or lonely or engaging in a specific social action project during the season of Lent
- Reducing personal waste to combat the ‘throwaway culture’.
“For the past two years, I have launched a Lenten initiative on social media to invite people to observe the three pillars of the Lenten season: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving,” Archbishop Martin said. “Each day during Lent on my own social media accounts and on the Catholic Bishops accounts, we share suggestions on how people might #LiveLent in the context of their faith.
“This year we will continue this initiative using the hashtag #LivingLent to give the sense that this intense period of fasting, prayer and almsgiving is something that we must live rather than something that we experience passively.”
Retiring Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia puts a positive emphasis on his Lenten observance. He encourages people to take care in their choice of sacrifice.
“I always encourage people not to be excessive in the Lenten sacrifices they take on. If it’s too burdensome, they won’t keep the commitment for very long,” Archbishop Chaput said. “It’s always better to commit to do something you’re already doing but to do it well, rather than to begin new projects and to neglect one’s ordinary spiritual life. For example, it would be better to pray well for 10 minutes than to pray badly for a half hour. Adding time to distracted prayer is not as virtuous as trying to concentrate more faithfully for a shorter period of time.
“I think that positive actions are better than negative ones because ‘positive’ is what the Lord Jesus is always about – wanting us to do more, to be more generous. An example would be to go visit someone who is aged and lonely. It may be a sacrifice in the sense that a person doesn’t want to do that, but is very positive in the impact it would have on the life of another.”
Archbishop Chaput has a special plan for this Lent: “When Lent arrives this year I will be entering into retirement and my prayer intentions and penances will be focused on supporting the new archbishop of Philadelphia.”
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference had similar practical advice for Lent.
“I see no reason to look beyond the three traditional disciplines of Lent – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. But I do see a reason to take them seriously.,” Archbishop Coleridge said. “By prayer I mean a more attentive listening to God, turning away from a culture of self-absorption; by fasting I mean turning away from a culture of consumption which can become addiction; by almsgiving I mean giving the needy what is their right, turning away from a culture of inequity. These are the age-old ways of dethroning the false gods, which is what Lent is all about.”
Archbishop Coleridge stressed that improvement comes through sacrifice. In Christianity, improvement comes from opening to the grace of God.
“My own path through Lent is a more focused and disciplined commitment to the asceticism of prayer, fasting and almsgiving,” Archbishop Coleridge said. “That means a second period of contemplative prayer each day; it means saying no to food and drink (especially alcohol) and to digital excess; and it means giving more than loose change to Project Compassion, which is the big fund-raising drive of Caritas in Australia. These aren’t the full range of my Lenten discipline (which can be quite spontaneous and unpredictable) but it’s where I start in an attempt to move beyond tokenism.”
“Soon we will be entering the season of Lent, a time when we seek spiritual renewal in our lives,” reminded Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster. “Step by step we will look into ourselves and pinpoint the ways in which we are neither truthful nor just and the ways in which we close our hearts to the promptings of God.”
Cardinal Nichols recommended looking to Mary especially during the Lenten season as a path to greater spiritual depth and connection with Jesus.
“Mary will always lead us to her Son. She will take us to him so that he can show us his love and mercy,” Cardinal Nichols said. “We all know well the title of Mary as our ‘sorrowful Mother’. We turn to her in our sorrows. Yet there is another tribute to her, even more deeply rooted in our tradition. It is that of the Joys of Mary. These Joys, often numbered as seven, including the coming of the Angel Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation and the wondrous birth of her Son, our Blessed Saviour and her glorious entry into the happiness of heaven. We share in them for they are the great joy of our faith. Indeed, we are called to be heralds of this joy in a world often in need of joyfulness. May Mary help us to know and share her joy as we live and proclaim our faith.”
Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto has suggestions for Lent that might be challenging for many: confession and fasting from media.
“I think one of the best things we can all do for Lent is to reflect on the words from the Sermon on the Mount: prayer, fasting, almsgiving,” Cardinal Collins said. “One tangible thing we can all do during Lent (in a more intentional way) is to get to confession.
“The sacrament of reconciliation allows us to develop a deeper and more profound relationship with our Lord. In the Archdiocese of Toronto, we offer a special ‘Day of Confessions’ both during Lent and Advent, where all parishes of the archdiocese open their churches to make the sacrament more accessible to the faithful.
“One thing that I enter into periodically is a media fast. Seminarians in our spiritual year refrain from using technology six days a week and for many; it is an eye-opener. I often say we want to use technology but not let technology use us. When we see the amount of time consumed online, the hatred expressed on social media, much of it anonymous, it is distressing. Many people would never express these words to someone in person. Perhaps if we focus more on how we can communicate with charity directly with an individual, even if we disagree with them, we can model the example of Jesus – speaking with clarity and charity. Or we can take some of the time we spend with technology and offer it in prayer or charity for others. Our words matter, whether in person or online. Lent is an appropriate time to reflect on how we can best reflect the face of Jesus in all that we do.”
Of course, the Bishop of Rome has strong recommendations about the full living of Lent for Catholics. In his March 18, 2019, homily at Mass in Casa Santa Marta in the Vatican, Pope Francis stressed the importance of not just material but spiritual almsgiving.
“One of Francis’ recommendations was not to judge and criticize others, and in doing this, he stressed, you imitate God’s mercy. The Holy Father reminded those gathered of God’s infinite mercy.
During this season of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, Francis urged faithful to be generous, not “with closed pockets.”
The Pope decried “gossiping,” in which we “continually judge and condemn others,” in which it becomes “increasingly difficult to forgive.”
“The Lord teaches us: ‘Give’. ‘Give and it will be given to you’: be generous in giving. Don’t have “closed pockets”; be generous in giving to the poor, to those in need and also in giving so many things: giving advice, giving people smiles, smiling. Always give, give.”
He reminded that when you give, it will be given back to you, for God always gives us a hundred-fold of all that we give.
Pope Francis concluded, urging those present to embrace almsgiving, not only material alms but also spiritual almsgiving, including “wasting time” with someone in need, visiting a disabled person, smiling.
If you are still thinking about what to “give up” for Lent, perhaps the above thoughts will put you on a path to deeper reflection.