My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
I hope that you had a wonderful Christmas and that you are already experiencing in this New Year the many blessings God bestows upon us each day! Although we just completed the Christmas season with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, in a few short weeks, on Feb. 6, we will begin Lent with the celebration of Ash Wednesday.
Each year the Church spends 40 days in prayer and penitence preparing for the celebration of the Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) reminds us that the Church enters with Jesus into the 40 days that he spent in the desert (CCC 540). In memory of the Lord’s death we are called to share in penitential practices such as “spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works)” (CCC 1438).
The Church recognizes that as human persons we are in need of continual growth and conversion or we become stagnant in our faith. Conversion is the constant turning of our hearts and minds to Jesus Christ, coming to know him, love him and serve him in an ever deeper way. We are called to die to our selfishness and sins, to embrace and more fully live out the virtues, and to grow in holiness by growing in intimacy with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The penitential practices that we are called to share in assist in our conversion. Let us look concretely at each one of them.
“Spiritual exercises” can include things like making a holy hour each week, attending daily Mass, prayerfully reading the Passion of the Lord from each one of the four Gospels, spending 10 minutes each day quietly reading and praying with the Gospel of Matthew, prayerfully reading the section of the Catechism on the Sacrament of Reconciliation (CCC 1422-1498) or the fourth pillar of the Catechism on Prayer (CCC 2258-2865), attending a day of recollection or parish Lenten mission, praying the rosary or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy each day, or reading a biography of one of the saints. These are just a few examples of the many types of “spiritual exercises” one may choose.
We may participate in “penitential liturgies” by joining with others in praying the Stations of the Cross, attending a Penance Service and making a personal Confession, and attending the Good Friday service.
“Pilgrimages as signs of penance” could consist of visiting one of the churches in the Diocese of Fargo or elsewhere with the specific intention of praying for the conversion of one’s own heart or the hearts of others; praying in front of the abortion facility in Fargo with the specific intentions of reparation for the sin of abortion, for the conversion of doctors who perform abortions and for those who support the so-called “right” to abortion; and making a pilgrimage to a particular shrine to pray for God’s mercy for oneself or others.
“Voluntary self-denial such as fasting or almsgiving” has a wide range of possibilities. Fasting may include not eating between meals or giving up a certain food or drink, but it may also include “fasting” or refraining from things that are harmful to others or to ourselves, spiritually or physically. These could include a wide range of things from gossiping about others in order to build ourselves up, which hurts the person about whom we are gossiping, weakens our relationship with God and is always sinful, to smoking cigarettes, which hurts the physical bodies God has given us and may be harmful to the health of those around us.
Whenever fasting from a vice, it is important to pray for a particular virtue. For example if we fast from gossip we should pray for the virtues of charity, prudence and respect for others. Or if we fast from smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco, we should pray for reverence for our bodies and the strength to overcome our dependence on things that are harmful to them.
Of course, the final intention of “fasting” from vices or sinful acts must be clear. While one may use Lent as a time to focus on avoiding sin through God’s grace and our actions it is not possible to think that one can “begin again” when Lent is over. Sin is to be avoided at all times and we must continually work to eliminate from our lives the vices that lead to sin.
We can participate in “almsgiving” by giving financial donations to charitable organizations consistent with our Catholic faith. Lent is also a good time to sit down and honestly look at how generous we are with the money that we have. Not only do we need to look at how we give and how much we give to see if we are truly tithing, but we must also look at our attitude toward giving. We must ask ourselves, “Do I give grudgingly or with a generous heart? Do I see my support of my parish as a way through which I show gratitude to God for all the blessings he has bestowed on me? Do I support the poor and the needy?”
Finally there is “fraternal sharing.” This could mean to visit the sick in hospitals or the elderly in nursing homes, to assist in a soup kitchen or a shelter for the homeless, to help with the distribution of food baskets, to volunteer at the St. Gianna Maternity Home in Warsaw, N.D., or at one of the Christian pregnancy help centers in our diocese, to make a commitment to teach religious education or help out in some way in a parish, or to share one’s faith with another person.
I encourage you during this upcoming Lenten season to decide on one or two very specific “penitential practices.” Remember that the reasons for your choices should be to help you to grow in holiness, in likeness of Jesus, to grow in intimacy with God, to grow in the love of your neighbor, and to grow in the virtues. Prayer is at the heart of all spiritual growth, so, above all, set aside time each day to pray.
My prayer for you as your bishop is that, during this Lenten season of 2008, your heart may grow in a deeper love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Through that love you will know and understand more fully the dignity given to you on the day of your baptism that is your true identity – a beloved son or a beloved daughter of the Father.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Most Reverend Samuel J. Aquila
Bishop of Fargo
This column will appear in the January issue of New Earth, the newspaper for the Diocese of Fargo, which will be printed later this week.