Catholic dioceses use fresh initiatives to promote traditions of Lent

Ash Wednesday Service in Westminster Cathedral Photo Credit Mazur CNA World Catholic News 3 8 11 Two young people participating in an Ash Wednesday Service in Westminster Cathedral. | Mazur

As Roman Catholics begin Lent with the traditional distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday, dioceses in the U.S. are seeking to pass on the ancient practices of the liturgical season in new ways.

The three traditional “pillars of Lent” – for Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, as well as some Protestants who observe the tradition – are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Through these three essential practices, Pope Benedict XVI said in his 2011 Lenten message, “Lent teaches us how to live the love of Christ in an ever more radical way.”

Fr. Randy Dollins of the Archdiocese of Denver and Auxilary Bishop Robert F. Hennessey of Boston spoke with CNA about initiatives that help Catholics focus on the meaning of the penitential season, and benefit spiritually from its traditions.

A sign of sacrifice

Fr. Dollins, a priest in Frisco, Colorado, began his “Sacrificium” campaign last year, and is now expanding it throughout the Archdiocese of Denver. Its message is in keeping with Pope Benedict XVI's recent call for a radical conversion away from “selfishness” and materialism during Lent.

Participants receive a black rubber bracelet, similar to those that have been used in recent years to promote awareness of various causes. But this one, imprinted with the Latin word for “sacrifice,” is primarily meant to maintain one's own awareness of the Lenten season and its meaning.

“People, including myself, seem to lack staying power during Lent,” Fr. Dollins explained. “I thought, what if there were a way to help people make a commitment?”

The bracelet comes with a “commitment card,” which has two parts. One part of the card, which the faithful keep for their own reference, lists the Church's requirements for fasting and abstinence from meat during Lent. The portion that they fill out, and give to their priest as a sign of commitment, tells what they plan to give up, or take on, as a meaningful Lenten sacrifice.

Besides serving as a reminder of the minimum requirements for fasting and abstinence, the sacrifice card gives weight to a Lenten practice that is sometimes trivialized – giving up something enjoyable and otherwise good, as a sacrifice to make more room for God and other people in one's life.

“You hand out the cards before Ash Wednesday, and people come back with the commitment card filled out,” said Fr. Dollins. “If they told the priest they were going to do something, I thought they would be more likely to follow through.”

After receiving ashes on their foreheads, the faithful can also receive the bracelet meant to carry the same message throughout the season. The Archdiocese of Denver plans to distribute over 100,000 of the bracelets throughout its parishes.

Fr. Dollins originally considered making the bracelets purple, the liturgical color associated with Lent. But he settled on black, as a lasting reminder of Ash Wednesday's solemn message. “It becomes like an outward sign of ashes, for the entirety of Lent,” he explained.

Coming home to Confession

In his 2011 Lenten message, Pope Benedict described Lent as a “favorable time to recognize our weakness – and to accept, through a sincere inventory of our life, the renewing Grace of the Sacrament of Penance.”

After overwhelmingly positive feedback from priests and the faithful last year, the Archdiocese of Boston will continue its campaign entitled “The Light is On For You.” This year, the initiative will join forces with Boston's “Catholics Come Home” campaign, which is launching a new TV campaign in time for Lent.

Beginning on Wednesday, March 16, priests will be available to hear confessions in every church of the archdiocese – over 300 in total – on every Wednesday evening of Lent, from 6:30 to 8:00pm.

Bishop Robert Hennessey, who is is charge of the Confession initiative, especially hopes that those who have been away from the sacrament – and perhaps even the Church – will feel welcomed back. He estimates that up to 26,000 Boston-area Catholics returned to Confession last year, through the simple but effective initiative.

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“Many of the priests had many people coming back, after being away for several years,” he said. “I would expect more of that, this year, because this is being done in conjunction with the 'Catholics Come Home' campaign.”

“I'm expecting it to be a great partnership,” said Bishop Hennessey.

The bishop recalled receiving a phone call from one archdiocesan priest who jokingly “accused” him of being responsible for an entire evening's worth of confessions during Lent of 2010.

“One priest called me up and left a message on my voicemail. He said, 'It's a quarter of ten, and I just left the confessional. It's all your fault!'”

“He had been there since 6:30, hearing confessions. He thought it was wonderful.”

Even if Confession seems intimidating, the bishop said, no one should pass up the experience of receiving Jesus' forgiveness through the sacrament.

“We are incapable of doing anything that is larger than God's capacity to forgive,” Bishop Hennessey explained. “Some people think, 'God won't forgive me' – or, 'It's been so long, God has forgotten who I am.'”

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“I remind them: no matter how long it's been, no matter what has happened, you can receive the forgiveness of Jesus.”

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