March 8, 2017 // National

Lent: The primary penitential season of the church’s year


Parishes, online tools, quiet times can take Lenten prayer up a notch

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Prayer, one of the three pillars of Lenten discipline, along with fasting and almsgiving, seems to get the biggest boost during Lent.

Spiritual leaders note that Catholics are most likely praying already and that Lent is a time to make this act even more intentional — to pray more or in a more focused way.

No matter how Catholics choose to up their prayer during Lent’s 40 days, they have opportunities to do so at their own parishes since many of them are offering Stations of the Cross, eucharistic adoration, added times for confession and maybe even retreats.

Those who can’t make it to anything extra at church can tap into tools for prayer right on their computers or smartphones with everything from virtual Stations of the Cross to apps that track spiritual activities or offer help on preparing for confession, praying the rosary or reading the Bible. Plenty of online retreats also are available including ones specifically geared for Lent.

Father John Riccardo, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth, Mich., said Lenten prayers can be divided into two different areas of focus. The first few weeks, he advises people to pray about areas that need to change, but during the second half of Lent, he said, prayers should focus more on trying to understand Jesus’ actions and how Christians are called to respond to them.

If the promptings for more prayer and the abundance of tools or events to guide people in prayer are overwhelming, Catholics also can turn to an approach advised by some spiritual leaders: finding quiet time.

Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, said that in today’s busy and often noisy world it’s hard to find quiet, but he urged Catholics in his archdiocese to try it.

“Lent is the season of silence. It is a time to enter into the desert, as Jesus did for 40 days,” he said in his Lenten message posted Feb. 26 on the website of the Chicago Catholic, the archdiocesan newspaper.

“Admittedly, silence can make us feel uneasy,” he wrote. “Perhaps it is because silence forces us to think, to feel, to be in touch with those deep areas of our lives where a sense of emptiness or meaninglessness may be lurking in our hearts.”

The cardinal said the Gospels often portray Jesus going off alone in silence to pray, which not only says something about him but indicates something his followers should consider.

Along this line, Cardinal Cupich said he has asked pastors in the Chicago Archdiocese during Lent to allow for extra time for silence during Mass, especially after Communion. “We need this silent time to allow God to speak to us. That means quieting ourselves even from saying prayers and just being aware of what Jesus tells us: we abide in God and God in us.”

Jesuit Father Adolfo Nicolas, the former superior general of the Society of Jesus, gave similar advice in a video interview with The Jesuit Post in which he said, “We need to develop a taste for silence … where we can hear the Spirit.”

He said the act of being silent as a form of prayer is not accomplished in a short time and there is “no formula or magic word” to make it work. He also stressed that finding times for quiet reflection doesn’t require a house with a garden and a chapel. Instead, he said, people should recognize that they carry the chapel within themselves all the time.

“In the midst of the noise,” he said, “we can create a spirit of silence.”

— Carol Zimmermann


Lent’s spiritual practice creates space for prayer

WASHINGTON (CNS) — There is no getting around fasting during Lent.

Not only is it one of the three pillars of spiritual practice along with prayer and almsgiving, but it also bookends the period of preparation for Easter.

Fasting and abstinence is required of adult Catholics, ages 18-59, at the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday and at its end on Good Friday. This means eating only one full meal and two small meals that equal one meal as well as no snacks in between meals and no meat consumption.

Creighton University’s Online Ministries program, “Praying Lent 2017,” says the purpose of fasting is to “experience the effects of not eating. It also serves to be a penance or a sacrifice for the purpose of strengthening us.”

“When we get hungry, we have a heightened sense of awareness,” it adds, noting that the practice helps people to clarify their thoughts. “It is purifying and prepares us to pray more deeply,” the resource from Jesuit-run Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., points out.

In addition to the two days of fasting, Catholics 14 and older are obligated to abstain from eating meat during Fridays in Lent.

The Friday practice is a sacrifice meant “to help Catholics make much bigger sacrifices,” the Creighton resource says, pointing out that not eating meat doesn’t give someone permission to eat a fancy fish meal. And for vegetarians, it could mean abstaining from a favorite meal.

Fasting, which has deep roots in many religious traditions, is meant to draw participants into deeper prayer and also link them with those in need.

For Christians, the tradition has roots in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples how they should look when they are fasting -— not gloomy, not neglecting their appearance and with their faces washed so they do not appear to be fasting.

“Jesus says when we fast, not if,” said Father John Riccardo, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth, Mich.

He said the key to fasting is to attach an intention to the practice “rather than seeing it as a flexing of our self-discipline muscles.” It makes the practice “not about me but someone else,” he told Catholic News Service March 1.

“Fasting is heavy artillery,” he added because the person doing it is denying themselves something and trusting that God will use it.

Although fasting is technically not eating food, giving something up can also be a form of fasting.

Msgr. Charles Murphy, author of the 2010 book: “The Spirituality of Fasting: Rediscovering a Christian Practice” said there are two forms of fasting — total and partial. A total fast is eating nothing and drinking nothing for a designated period of time where a partial fast involves giving up certain things for a specific period of time.

Partial fasting is a popular part of Lent where people choose to give up something such as soda, candy, beer, television or more increasingly, social media.

The top things people said they were going to give up this Lent, according to, a Web search engine that examined Twitter posts during the week of Feb. 26, included a mix of social media and food and one wishful thinking: school. The only other top 10 mention that wasn’t a food or drink was to give up swearing.

Partial fasting, just like a full fast, shouldn’t be done to benefit the person doing it. “It’s not to make us more narcissistic, which it can do,” said Paulist Father Jack Collins, who helped Busted Halo, the Paulist website, with videos like “You don’t know Jack about Lent” a few years ago.

“We don’t fast to feel good, but to remind ourselves that half the world goes to bed hungry,” he said, adding that it’s a way of reminding us “we are our brother’s keeper.”

Paulist Father Larry Rice, director of the University Catholic Center at the University of Texas at Austin, is not keen on people looking for a loophole in their fasting practices, for example saying that Sundays don’t count and they can have whatever they gave up that day.

“I get that people want a pressure relief valve, “ he said, “but when I open my missal it says the First Sunday of Lent” meaning Sunday counts.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gives a little leeway here. In its fasting guidelines it notes that if someone is giving something up for Lent it is more effective if it is continuous — “kept on Sundays as well. That being said, such practices are not regulated by the church, but by individual conscience.”

Father Rice, who is giving up riding elevators for Lent, said the Catholic college students he works with typically give up a food or social media. “They won’t give up texting. That would be like giving up breathing,” he added.

— Carol Zimmermann


Lenten practice gives chance to ‘be generous with the poor’

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Although the word almsgiving does not come up much in regular conversation, Catholics hear it plenty during Lent since it is one of the three pillars of the church’s Lenten practices along with prayer and fasting.

Although the three practices work together, almsgiving can sometimes get the short shrift because people might be more apt to pray and fast — in private or at church — than they might reach out to those in need.

The church defines almsgiving as donating money or goods to the poor and performing other acts of charity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it as “a witness to fraternal charity” and “a work of justice pleasing to God.”

There is plenty of biblical support for this practice in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus urged his disciples not to brag about helping others saying: “When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others.”

An Old Testament passage puts almsgiving at the top of the Lenten practices: “Prayer with fasting is good. Almsgiving with righteousness is better than wealth with wickedness. It is better to give alms than to store up gold, for almsgiving saves from death, and purges all sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life” (Tobit 12:8-9).

Father John Riccardo, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth, Mich., takes the Bible passage at its word, saying: “I always think almsgiving atones for a multitude of sins.”

“It’s a simple way to respond. God’s been generous to me; clearly I can do this with the poor,” he told Catholic News Service March 1.

The priest, who hosts the radio program “Christ is the Answer” for Ave Maria Radio, in Ann Arbor, Mich., said a good way to tie in almsgiving to fasting is by putting aside the money one might spend on a purchase not bought during Lent and give it to the poor.

Another idea, he said, is to make a conscious effort not to dodge those on the street looking for money but to pray that they will be put in your path and then be generous with them not only with money but by taking the time to look at them, ask them what their name is and tell them you will pray for them.

“Simple things like that are astounding, because they don’t often hear their names,” he said, stressing that Catholics should use the time of Lent to “be on the lookout for opportunities to be generous with the poor.”

Paulist Father Larry Rice, director of the University Catholic Center at the University of Texas at Austin, says he encourages almsgiving with Catholic Relief Services’ annual Rice Bowl program for Lent. College students don’t use the Rice Bowl’s cardboard box of old, which is still used in parishes around the country, but are more likely to use program’s app which takes online donations because they “never carry cash,” the priest said.

The Rice Bowl, now in its 42nd year, has been a Lenten staple to raise awareness about hunger and funds to combat hunger and poverty. Last year, more than 13,000 faith communities participated in the annual collection.

In a Lenten message posted on Ascension Presents website, Father Mike Schmitz, director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth, Minn., stressed that donations to the CRS Rice Bowl should be more than spare change. Donations shouldn’t be “leftovers,” but cash, he said.

He also said almsgiving could take on forms other than just monetary donations and could even involve writing a note to someone different each day of Lent.

What’s key, he said, is that almsgiving is “not about us” but about others.

— Carol Zimmermann

* * *

The best news. Delivered to your inbox.

Subscribe to our mailing list today.